Mar. 20, 2003 – Vol. 22 No. 12

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    Between the Boards: Curious collection from Crerar on display

    By Seth Sanders
    News Office

    [William Furneaux, ed. <I>Dr. Minder’s Anatomical Manikin of the Human Body</I>. [1902?]]
    This model illustrating various layers of the body appears in an early 20th-century anatomy book. Moving parts were a feature of early books, and 19th-century advances in printing made it possible to produce them for a mass audience. Anatomical flap books generalize for teaching purposes and are intended to popularize understanding. By manipulating the illustrations, the reader effortlessly gets beneath the skin to look inside the body.
    The John Crerar Library’s annual report for 1909 might seem an unpromising angle from which to view the limits of the universe. The report describes with equal enthusiasm the acquisition of rare books and contemporary technical journals, such as Napoleon Bonaparte’s massive and exquisitely illustrated Description de l’Égypte and publications of the Trigonometrical Survey of India.

    But taken together, they define the way books in the then-independent John Crerar Library tried to compress the world between two covers.

    [Jacob Hübner (1761-1826). <I>Geschichte europäishcer Schmetterlinge</I>. [Augsburg, 1793-1842].]
    Jacob Hübner, who collected moths and butterflies and made detailed drawings and hand-colored engravings of them and their habitats, pioneered the study of immature and adult stages of insects. Hübner’s vast compilations of illustrations made it possible to identify and distinguish closely allied species, facilitating the development of a more precise and systematic nomenclature for lepidoptery.
    In a new exhibition, “Between the Boards: Collections, Compilations, and Curiosities from the John Crerar Collection of Rare Books in the History of Science and Medicine,” visitors can see how books have been used to actually embody and classify whole civilizations and forms of life. The exhibition celebrates the completion of a project, supported by University Trustee Harvey Plotnick, to create online records for approximately 20,000 books in the Crerar rare book collection.

    “There are some marvelously beautiful and unusual things on display,” said Alice Schreyer, Director of the Special Collections Research Center at the University of Chicago Library.

    “Among the most intriguing may be a book by Edward Tuckerman, a botanist, which has actual specimens of lichens mounted onto paper and enclosed in six portfolio cases with printed title pages and printed labels, making it a portable herbarium. It takes a moment to realize you’re not looking at photographs, engravings or illustrations of lichens but the real thing. Tuckerman created a collection between the boards, functioning and looking like a book.”

    Schreyer said lichens are just the beginning. “There are anatomical flap-books, with illustrations of the different layers of the human body, from the flesh down to the skeleton, each on a different layer, like a children’s pop-up book, but an early 20th-century version very much for adults. You lift the flaps and see the next layer of the human body. It’s for a popular audience, exploiting new technologies of printing and graphic reproduction to make instructional books widely available.

    “Sherman Foote Denton’s book on moths and butterflies, which is another personal favorite, is an example of nature printing, where actual specimens are used in making the printing plate. The illustrations in this special copy were made by incorporating parts of the butterfly bodies but also using engraving and hand coloring. They’re astounding to look at and think about what went into making them, to see them as part of an effort to explore techniques of scientific illustration that can achieve fidelity to nature between the boards of a book.”

    [Jacob Theodor Klein, <I>Ova avium plurimarum</I>. Leipzig: J.J. Kanter, 1766.]
    These hand-colored engravings show the subtle variations of birds’ eggs. Jacob Klein served as Secretary of the Senate in Danzig and founded a botanical garden there. He collected natural history objects to further his interest in taxonomy and believed classification should be based on visible characteristics. Klein’s work, an effort to encompass the known world of birds’ eggs in one place, allows comparisons between different specimens.
    [Nicholas Senn (1844-1908). [<I>Herbarium</I>]. Mounted specimens. [189-?].]
    Nicholas Senn was a renowned Chicago surgeon and an important book collector. Senn’s collection of plant specimens is mounted on paper with handwritten labels and arranged according to the months of the year. Herbaria in book form bypass the expensive process of producing printed illustrations and avoid the need to reduce nature to two dimensions, but suffer from variations between specimens and changes in color over time.
    The Crerar rare book collection, which is maintained as a separate collection in the Special Collections Research Center, also contains first editions of most of the famous landmark books in the history of science, medicine and technology. These include a censored copy of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus (1543), which articulated the view of the cosmos with the sun at the center of the universe.

    In his will, John Crerar (1827 to 1889), a Chicago business leader and philanthropist, intended that the bequest be used to create “a Free Public Library;” the will did not stipulate a subject for the library.

    Crerar did insist that “the books and periodicals be selected with a view to create and sustain a healthy moral and Christian sentiment in the community, and that all nastiness and immorality be excluded ... dirty French novels and all skeptical trash and works of questionable moral tone shall never be found in this library.” His executors decided that an emphasis on the natural and physical sciences would complement the collections of the Chicago Public Library and the Newberry Library, the city’s other major public libraries.

    With some refocusing, the collection has grown ever since. Following a 1981 merger with the University of Chicago, the Crerar collection was moved to Hyde Park in 1984.

    Visitors will indeed find no French novels of any sort. But now, through Friday, June 20, wanderers through the gallery of the Special Collections Research Center in the Regenstein Library will have unique access to a stimulating and beautiful spectrum of attempts to put the world between two boards.