Watkinson Library Spotlights Audubon “Bird of the Week”

Giant Ornithological Book is a Real Page-Turner

Clockwise from bottom left: Jose Reis joins Watkinson staff members Sally Dickinson, Henry Arneth, Peter Rawson, and Rick Ring, along with Cheryl Cape from Information Technology Services, for the weekly page-turning ritual.

Hartford, Connecticut, January 19, 2016 – Once a week, Watkinson Library staff members open a purpose-built glass case that houses Trinity College’s copy of The Birds of America and carefully turn a page in the massive book so that visitors can admire a different bird illustration each week.

The Birds of America, by John James Audubon, is one of the world’s rarest books and Trinity’s copy is particularly special. Donated in 1900 by Gurdon Wadsworth Russell, an 1834 graduate of Trinity, this copy was originally owned by Robert Havell, the English engraver of the series. The project took 11 years for Audubon and Havell to finish, and was printed on “double elephant folio” sheets measuring two by four feet, the largest paper ever used for a book. Published between 1836 and 1839, it includes 435 engravings that were hand-colored and bound in four volumes. Of an estimated 200 copies of The Birds of America that were produced, fewer than 120 complete sets are known to have survived (for years, dealers worldwide have “broken” sets to sell the plates individually).

The Watkinson’s weekly page-turning ritual began in 2011, and Richard Ring, head curator for the Watkinson Library, says that it will be 2020 before all the pages are turned and the process will begin again with volume 1, plate 1 of the “Wild Turkey.” Soon after the library publicly announced its plan to turn one page of the book each week, Hartford resident Jose Reis decided to take the bus to campus every week to be there in person. In addition to witnessing the “reveal” of a new page of the book each week, Reis researches the featured birds, taking advantage of the Watkinson’s comprehensive collection of ornithology books. 

From left, Jose Reis admires the striking “Raven” plate 101
of volume 2 of The Birds of America, as Peter Rawson,
Sally Dickinson, and Rick Ring look on.

“It’s a great opportunity not to be missed,” said Reis on a recent Monday as volume 2 was removed after two years in the display case, and volume 3 was installed. The “Canadian Goose” (plate 201) took over as the featured bird, succeeding the previous week’s “Horned Lark” (plate 200). While the volumes were being exchanged, Reis took the opportunity to “reprise” the birds in volume 2, including the striking plate 101 of the “Raven.”

The Watkinson Library is located in the Raether Library and Information Technology Center on the Trinity campus, and is open Mondays through Fridays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Click here for Watkinson Library contact information.

For a map of the Trinity campus, click here

Written by Kathy Andrews.