Friday, January 06, 2012

Tour of the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution

In this third installment of my Smithsonian Institution tours, I focus on one of the 20 Smithsonian Libraries, the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History. According to the library’s collecting policy, it collects works “that directly support the collections-based research of the National Museum of Natural History, primarily botanical and zoological taxonomy and systematics, as well as various earth sciences and anthropology/archaeology.” The library also holds volumes on “voyages of exploration and scientific expeditions and the history of natural science museums.”

Established in 1978, this group of Special Collections includes 16,000 rare books, nearly all published prior to 1840 (the Smithsonian’s cutoff date for “rare”). Although the library was created in the late 1970s, its volumes had been collected at the Smithsonian for more than 150 years, mostly in the museum offices and libraries, according to the library’s web site. Carolyn Sheffield (see the previous tour) accompanied me on the tour of the Cullman Library, and enjoyed seeing a part of the Smithsonian she had wanted to visit for a while. Our host was Leslie Overstreet, Curator of Natural History Rare Books.

About the Curator
From Smithsonian Tours

Leslie Overstreet, pictured above inside the vault at the Cullman Library, is a 30-year veteran of the Smithsonian. She has degrees in English Literature and Secondary Education from Reed College, and in Library Science from the University of Maryland. She also has attended the prestigious Rare Book School at Columbia University and later the University of Virginia since 1989.

If you ever felt like you were on a long-term research project, think again. For the past 15 years, Leslie has been investigating the printing and distribution of Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, (London, 1731-1743) in order to identify an unusual copy of the work that the library holds. She says, “This includes a copy-census. I am contributing a chapter to a colleague’s book on Catesby’s watercolors and hope to publish my own research (finally!) in the coming year.” To see color images digitized from Catesby’s volume, visit the Smithsonian’s Galaxy of Images at

Leslie’s favorite collections include the James Smithson Library and the 18th century botanical and zoological monographs “for their extraordinarily beautiful hand-colored engravings,” she says. I can understand why she would favor the personal books of the Institute’s founder. It’s a fantastic collection covering a wide range of subjects including chemistry, mineraology, family cookbooks, and much more.

From Smithsonian Tours

From Smithsonian Tours

In the photos above, Leslie shows us unbound and uncut pages (in signatures) from a botanical book in the Cullman Library’s collections. In Smithson’s day, books were commonly sold un-bound or only partially sewn into a text-block, so that the buyers could select their own covers. Wealthy people would have their books bound into leather and gilt to match other volumes on their library shelves. But Smithson didn’t often bother. He kept most of his books just as he bought them – in paper wrappers (often lined with printers’ waste paper). An example is shown below.

From Smithsonian Tours

More About the Collections
Because the Cullman Library has limited funds for new purchases, it does not purchase titles that duplicate the holdings in local libraries such as those of the Library of Congress, university libraries, the Folger, etc., unless the works are central to the research mission of the museum. That said, the librarians are happy to accept donations of personal collections. For example, many of the collections have been donated by Smithsonian scientists and staff, dating back to the early days of the Institution.

The library only has two staff, Leslie and a library technician, Daria Wingreen-Mason. They are very busy people, handling research visits, reference queries, scanning requests, and group tours, as well as curating exhibitions, searching for old books to fill gaps in the collection, and managing cataloging and conservation projects. Leslie also has had Library Scholars in Residence, who usually stay for a few months, researching various topics.

During our tour, Leslie showed us some real treasures of the Cullman Library’s collections. Among those items, I have selected just a few to share with you in hopes that the next time you are in Washington, D.C., you will visit Leslie and see the Cullman Library’s excellent collections.

The first example is this Pliny the Elder Naturalis Historia (Natural History) of 1491.

From Smithsonian Tours

The original annotations you can see on the pages were done in two different inks, in different handwriting. It is unknown who the annotators were. Leslie says that Pliny’s was the first truly scientific text from the classical era (ancient Rome) to be put into print.

This next work is an extraordinary hand-colored folio by Maria Sibylla Merian, a German artist who lived from 1647-1717. Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium shows the metamorphosis of insects and butterflies and the plants and plant parts on which they lived during their lives. See the photo below for an example.

From Smithsonian Tours

Early in her career, Merian had been barred from publishing her entomological and botanical drawings because she was a woman, but she worked around the system by presenting them as patterns for embroidery. Later, after her voyage to the Dutch colony of Surinam, she published the Metamorphosis herself in 1705. It was the first folio-sized, fully illustrated, and hand-colored work based directly on first-hand field observation and specimen collection, and it kicked off two centuries of beautifully illustrated works in the natural sciences. To see more of the gorgeous images from the book, visit the Smithsonian’s Galaxy of Images at and enter the term “merian” in the Search field.

The final example of a rare book in the Cullman Library’s collection is quite a recent work. Published in 2008, the Botanica Magnifica is a breathtaking set of 5 volumes of digital photographs by Jonathan Singer, with text by botanical curators W. John Kress and Marc N. Hachadourian.

From Smithsonian Tours

My photo of the custom wooden case and "Florilegium" volume (above) do not do the work justice. Each volume is a double-elephant folio and is “bound in dark brown goatskin with gold- and platinum-embossed leather onlays in botanical designs; gilt-tooled spines and cover titles,” according to the Smithsonian’s Library catalog page. Singer has said that no other copies of the work shall be made in as large a size. The five volumes are titled “Orchidaceae,” “Florilegium,” “Proteus,” “Zingiberaceae,” and “Botanicus.” To see examples of Singer’s photos from the Botanica Magnifica, visit his web site:

Contact Information
Leslie K. Overstreet
Curator of Natural-History Rare Books
Smithsonian Institution Libraries
NHB CE-G15 / MRC 154
P.O. Box 37012
Washington DC 20013-7012
(202) 633-1184

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