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Library special collections reveal trove of scientific writing, history

Pieces include book annotated by Galileo, Audubon sketches, antiquated scientific equipment

Some of the University’s most valuable scientific works lie behind unlocked doors.

Granted, the room is alarmed, said Holly Snyder, librarian and curator of American Historical Collections, as she walked into the Lownes Reading Room, located on the second floor of the John Hay library. The room is home to books from the History of Science Collections, which offer intriguing and rare pieces of literary art, all available for students, staff and faculty to peruse. Categorized into different sections, The History of Science Collections contain “one of the nation’s finest collections of science collections,” according to its website.

Of these special groupings, the Lownes Collection of Significant Books, named after  Albert E. Lownes ’20, is by far the most extensive.

Consisting of over 5,000 individual pieces, the collection encompasses the life’s work of the philanthropist, who made his money in textiles. Lownes’ passion for the history of science was so profound and thorough that the University employed him as a visiting lecturer for 30 years, Snyder said.

A striking piece in this assembly is the book “Siderius Nuncius,” which contains the first written observations of celestial bodies using telescopes. Written by the famous astronomer Galileo Galilei, the book fits neatly into a custom boxed protector and is stored in the vault in the Hay. Featuring beautiful plate etchings of the moon and sun, the Siderius is in surprisingly good condition despite having been cut down and rebound multiple times. Besides its notable rarity, the work is thought to be annotated by Galileo himself — a belief that skyrocketed its value at auctions and sales before Lownes acquired it, Snyder said.

“Books here are important for starting dialogue,” Synder said. The Siderius, when published, was read widely by scholars around Europe, including Johannes Kepler, a famous mathematician, astronomer and astrologer known for his discoveries on planetary motion. The notes on the manuscript could even be considered a precursor for a second edition after Galileo heard critiques of his work, Snyder said.

Whole collections within the library provide a unique perspective on the scientific progress of the time. According to Snyder, people from as far as Japan have come to visit the David E. Pingree Collection on the History of Mathematics and Exact Sciences, which is named after a former history professor and also located in the reading room. Pingree’s personal collections — consisting of multiple works of Indus mathematics — have become a vital resource for the University. Rather than traveling all over India and the world, many scholars visit Providence to study a cohesive set of works in one place.

For those students whose Latin or Hindi might be a little lacking, Snyder points to the room itself, full of artifacts and interesting curios. Original telescopes, antiquated scientific equipment and ancient clocks — all of which hold ties to the collection and were donated by alums and organizations — line the walls of the reading room.

Some particularly striking features of the room include the black and white prints of birds, also donated by Lownes, that hang on the walls above the locked cabinets. Considered inferior to the color prints popular at the time, most of these Audubon sketches have been lost or destroyed, Snyder said.

The University's Lownes endowment is dedicated to support the library's purchase of significant books. Donations like this are vital to the breadth and integrity of the library system, Snyder said. While the University has an entire annex in Cranston for the storage of books, as well as lucrative collection deals — for example, a copy of every single book published by St. Martin’s press is sent to the library system — the libraries are always looking for unique and significant pieces to add to their collection, said Librarian Associate Andy Moul.

One particularly unique piece the library has obtained is the Catoptrum microcosmicum, a 17th-century anatomical atlas donated by the Rhode Island Medical Society.

The atlas is peculiar not in its writings, but in the descriptions and pictures that follow it, Snyder said. Rather than face persecution and censorship from the Church at the time due to showing exposed body parts, the author of the work essentially glued layers of paper skin and muscle over every anatomical model in the work, she said. The manpower alone required for publishing each work is awe-inspiring; the layers, as many as 25 laid over each other, peel back to reveal nerves, genitalia and even the occasional fetus within the body, all lined in perfect proportion. One could almost call the Catoptrum the world’s first published flip-book.

There is an art in the way these books are categorized and placed together, as well as a science behind their history and preservation. But perhaps the most under-used aspects of these collections are the librarians themselves. Snyder stressed that she and fellow librarians are always available to help students in search of a particular subject.

“People are good resources as well,” she said.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated that the name of the book “Siderius Nuncius” was “Siderius Narcius.” The article also misstated that the University’s endowment for the History of Science Collections totaled $1,500 per year. In fact, this figurereferred to the University’s Lownes endowment, which is just one of several endowment funds that contribute to History of Science Collections. The Herald regrets the error.


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