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From the Stacks 

October 18, 2013

An Explosive Botanical Smackdown

Botanical illustration is an important aid to the study and classification of plants. Botanists and illustrators work together to create illustrations specifically designed to complement text. Botanical illustrations are used to illustrate floras, monographs, field guides and research papers. The artists follow well-established conventions, including a preference for black and white work, an ability to create drawings from herbarium specimens and an attention to detailed magnifications of diagnostic characters. Technical accuracy is essential.

This Smackdown, we light up the Firecracker flower, Dichelostemma ida-maia. 

from The Wild Flowers of California, by Mary Elizabeth Parsons, first published in 1897

from The Wild Flowers of California, by Mary Elizabeth Parsons, first published in 1897. Illustration by Ms. Buck.


Lithographic plate image courtesy of Academy's Special Collections.

Lithographic plate of above  image courtesy of Academy’s Special Collections.

Mary Elizabeth Parsons was born on August 1, 1859, in Chicago, Illinois. Although she had little formal education, she was always interested in gardening and horticulture. She came to California in 1883 and through her cousin, William Kent (a Republican Congressman), she met Alice Eastwood, Curator of Botany at the California Academy of Sciences.
Mary Elizabeth Parsons was the author of The Wild Flowers of California, first published in 1897 and later re-published in 1902, 1906, 1925 and finally in 1955. This publication by the California Academy of Sciences has a preface by John Thomas Howell, Curator of Botany.

Little is known about Miss Buck’s life today.  We tracked down the following from Wayne Roderick’s  California Native Plantsman.

Her family home was apparently in San Rafael. She and Elizabeth Parsons shared an interest in drawing and painting and for a time were members together in an art class given in San Rafael by a Mr. Latimer. As the wildflower book took shape in the 1890s, it was only natural for the author to turn to her talented companion of the Latimer class for assistance with the illustrations.

(c) 2013, Diane T Sands watercolor and pen&ink on illustration board

(c) 2013, Diane T Sands
watercolor and pen & ink on illustration board

A long time ago, I was a member of the American Society of Botanical Artists, a great group of artists and collectors who are “dedicated to promoting public awareness of contemporary botanical art, to honoring its traditions and to furthering its development.” For the ASBA, scientific illustration is a smaller piece of botanical art. In my mind, it is the other way around. Not only do I have a predilection for drawing animals, but I kept getting hung up on the required conventions of botanicals, specifically the isolated specimens on a pure white background with no extras. I can’t help it; I find this set up kind of boring. Mentally, I draw wild beasts into these delicate works, ripping the foliage apart or add killer robots with blasters setting fire to the petals.

August 22, 2013

Smack Fish Wolf Down

The Atlantic Wolffish, Anarhichas lupus, is an odd looking creature. The largest of the blennies, it can reach lengths of 5ft. or more. Its derpy expression is caused by the fang-like front teeth that protrude from the jaw. Creepy looking, but harmless to humans, they feed on mussels, crabs and other hard-shelled critters – using the anterior teeth to grasp, and the rounded molariform teeth to grind.

(c) California Academy of Sciences

(c) California Academy of Sciences

This illustration of Anarhichas lupus is by Marcus Elieser Bloch, from the book Allgemeine Naturgeschichte der Fische. Published in 1801, it was an influential work in early ichthyology. We displayed this illustration at Deep Sea Nightlife, along with a preserved specimen from the Steinhart Aquarium.

(c) 2013 Diane T Sands gouache and pencil

(c) 2013 Diane T Sands
gouache and pencil

What fascinated me about the wolffish was the huge contrast between the blue-grey, striped loner who eats shellfish, and the monstrous looking skull. It was the process of discovering this contrast that I chose to illustrate in the above study.

July 9, 2013

The Changing of the Bird

Today marked our semi-annual page turning of the Audubon Double-Elephant portfolio on display in the library reading room. Cameras were on hand to record this momentous occasion.


You may have noticed that we are not wearing gloves during this procedure.  While we use white cotton gloves for handling photographs and negatives, cotton can snag, tear, or abrade fragile paper, and the looseness of the gloves makes it difficult to get a secure grip on the text block.  However, we thoroughly wash all surfaces (including our hands!) before beginning.  If you would like more information, feel free to read “Misconceptions about White Gloves” from the December 2005 International Federation of Library Associations Newsletter (http://archive.ifla.org/VI/4/news/ipnn37.pdf) or email the library and we’ll put you in touch with our rare books librarian (library [at] calacademy [dot] org) who will happily explain the handling policies for rare book materials.


For all of his prowess as an artist and fundraiser, Audubon had his faults. Reading through his writings it is clear to me that he either trusted people not at all, or far too much. The Pirpiry Flycatcher plate is one good example of this. In his description of obtaining specimens (Ornithological biography, v.2.), Audubon mentions that the son of a friend told him this species were nesting in the College Yard in South Carolina, which he ignored completely, only to admit later they were noted to return every year for three years hence. In the same entry, he states he was told that the plant on which he depicted the bird was abundant in Cuba, so he believed it appropriate as a background. It may exist in Cuba and the Keyes, but it is native from Malaysia to North Australia.

"Gray Tyrant" by John James Audubon. Birds of America: From Drawings Made in the United States and Their Territories (Octavo Ed. 1870). California Academy of Sciences Library, Rare Books QL674 .A9 1870.

“Gray Tyrant” by John James Audubon. Birds of America: From Drawings Made in the United States and Their Territories (Octavo Ed. 1870). California Academy of Sciences Library, Rare Books QL674 .A9 1870.

As new research is added and collected accounts synthesized, plants and animals change names. The species depicted in this plate not only have several common names, but their genus names have shifted as well.

Pirpiry Flycatcher/ Gray Tyrant/ Pitirre/ Gray Kingbird

Muscicapa dominicensis/ Tyrannus dominicensis

Hummingbird Tree/ Scarlet Wisteria/ Agati/ Bokful/ Heron Flower

Agati grandiflora/ Aeschynomene grandiflora/ Sesbania grandiflora

Our Double-Elephant Folio was the gift of Edward E. and Florence Hopkins Hills of San Francisco. The set survived the 1906 earthquake and fire in the hands of the San Francisco Art Association, who sold the work to Hills in 1941.  The work came to the Academy in 1964.


Filed under: Audubon,Rare Books — Archives & Special Collections @ 6:47 pm

June 14, 2013

Mystery in the Stacks, Part II

Last month I wrote about Leverett Mills Loomis, the two Guadalupe Storm Petrels, and the other items he rescued from the fire that destroyed the California Academy of Sciences in the wake of the 1906 earthquake. I discussed our fine copy of Marc Athanse Parfait Oeillet Des Murs’ Iconographie Ornithologique, which I have referenced multiple times over the years without realizing that Loomis had saved it. If you’d like to view a complete copy of this beautiful work online, visit the Biodiversity Heritage Library to see the Smithsonian’s copy.

I promised to return and discuss the part of Loomis’ letter of May 7, 1906 reading:

As I wanted to be the first donor to the Academy’s new ornithological library, I put Brown’s illustrations under my arm as I passed the store-room.

 This read to me as if Loomis was in possession of some of Captain Thomas Brown’s hand colored engravings, originally issued in 1835 as Illustrations of the American Ornithology of Alexander Wilson and Charles Lucian Bonaparte, Prince of Musignano… The work was intended to serve as the illustrated atlas accompanying the original European edition of Alexander Wilson’s groundbreaking American Ornithology, first issued in Philadelphia between 1808 and 1814.

I found this shocking to say the least. I had never seen a copy of Brown’s Illustrations in the Library, and I only 12 copies are listed in OCLC WorldCat. It is a beautiful work, considered one of the rarest illustrated ornithologies, issued in Royal Folio (20 inches tall) with vividly colored plates.

plate3-web                  plate4-web

(Left: Plate 16 “Carolina Parrot,” Yellow-billed Cuckoo,” and “Black-billed Cuckoo.” Right: Unnumbered plate “Honduras Turkey.” Both from Illustrations of the American Ornithology of Alexander Wilson and Charles Lucian Bonaparte.)

None of the records I examined gave any clue as to what Loomis had done with “Brown’s Illustrations.” Remembering that the Rare Book collections were once upon a time cataloged differently than (and housed separately from) the rest of the Library, I decided to scan the shelves to see if anything seemed to fit the bill.

Scanning the oversize shelves in the range of QL674 – QL682 (the classification of the other Wilson volumes), I figured I might find a manila folder with a few loose plates, or something similar. Imagine my surprise at finding what appeared to be a large, complete folio volume, with a call number on a tag (made on a typewriter) but with no barcode or other label. A bookplate on the pastedown reads “Presented by Leverett Mills Loomis April 18, 1906.” It seems unlikely that Loomis would make a gift to the Library while the City was engulfed in flames, so I’m going to wager that this bookplate was created long after the book was rescued.

When I opened the volume, I discovered an inscription (in Latin) apparently written by Behr, gifting this book to Loomis in July of 1900 or 1901.


(Inscription from H.H. Behr to Leverett Mills Loomis, from Illustrations of the American Ornithology of Alexander Wilson and Charles Lucian Bonaparte.)

The first plate in the book also boasts the inscription “Property of H. H. Behr” faintly in the upper right.


(Plate 1 “California Vulture” From Illustrations of the American Ornithology of Alexander Wilson and Charles Lucian Bonaparte.)

Dr. Behr served as Vice President of the California Academy of Sciences and was an accomplished physician, collector of butterflies, and Curator of Entomology, as well as a speaker and scholar of at least six languages. He passed away in 1904 at the age of 85, and was lovingly eulogized by his Academy colleagues.

It would seem these are the illustrations Loomis saved in 1906; however, I have found no record of when this book came to the Academy Library. It was possibly transferred after Loomis’ death in 1928, or at some point when the Ornithology department merged their library with the Main collection. Regardless, we will soon finish cataloging the book, making 13 OCLC libraries with a copy of Illustrations of the American Ornithology of Alexander Wilson and Charles Lucian Bonaparte by Captain Thomas Brown.

Becky Morin
Head Librarian

Filed under: Academy History,Rare Books — Librarian @ 9:00 pm

The Reading Room has gone batty!

For those of you able to stop by the Library Reading Room, there is a newly installed exhibit featuring BATS!

Nearly 20% of all mammals are bats. There are roughly 1,240 bat species worldwide. The order Chiroptera (from the Greek, meaning “hand-wing”) is broken into two subclasses. The megachiroptera are large, primarily fruit-eating bats that rely on sight and smell to locate their food. The microchiroptera feed on insects, which they locate via echolocation.

bats from Buffon's Natural History, 1797

bats from Buffon’s Natural History, 1797, courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

I saw this image on the  Biodiversity Heritage Library’s Flickr stream . It is from Buffon’s Natural history, containing a theory of the earth, a general history of man, of the brute creation, and of vegetables, minerals, &c. &c. From the French, with notes by the translator.  London:1797-1807. And honestly, at first I thought they were some weird sheep, or blocky, ungulate-sized mice. What else for a scientific illustrator to do, but create an improved image?


(c) Diane T Sands 2013, pastel on paper

The three bats presented in the Buffon image done here in pastel, from top to bottom:

  • Greater Bulldog bat, Nolctilio nigrita

  • Ternat or Greater Yellow House bat, Pteropus vulgaris

  • Senegal bat, Vespertilio nigrita

The bat exhibit will be on display in the Library Reading Room through the end of 2013.

Filed under: Exhibits,Rare Books,Scientific Illustration,Smackdown — Dsands @ 7:18 pm

May 3, 2013

One Big Disaster, Two Small Birds, and a Mystery in the Stacks

Happy May!

T.S. Eliot famously wrote “April is the cruelest month,” and when I look back on 160 years of the California Academy of Sciences, I am inclined to agree with that sentiment. The Library and Archives are involved in preserving and sharing the history of the Academy, and we all know quite a bit about April 18, 1906 and the massive earthquake and devastating fire that destroyed nearly all of the Academy’s collections. After the fires were extinguished, the Academy had 1497 botanical types, saved by Alice Eastwood, the original Minutes of Academy meetings, some other historical records and specimens, and two Guadalupe Storm Petrels (Oceanodroma macrodactyla).

Above, the Oceanodroma macrodactyla specimens housed in Ornithology & Mammalogy
Below, the tags on the specimens reading “Saved From The Fire”


When I have occasion to talk about Academy history (a regular occurrence), I have rarely given much thought to any books or other print matter that may have been rescued besides the Minutes and a valuable manuscript by Theodore Henry Hittell. We are grateful to have those, as they inform much of what we know about the founding and early days of the Academy. And to be honest, I never like to think very hard about all of records and literature lost in the disaster. But, I always bring up Alice Eastwood, and I always mention these two petrels, which were saved by the Academy’s Director Leverett Mills Loomis. Loomis studied this variety of seabird, and possessed excellent foresight in securing the type specimen (described by W.E. Bryant in 1887) as O. macrodactyla would cease to be seen alive in the wild after 1911. But the birds are small, and I imagine the chaotic, post-earthquake scene of Mary Hyde rescuing the heavy, unwieldy books of Academy Minutes, and Alice Eastwood, working with a friend to tie up and save nearly 1500 herbarium sheets, while Director Loomis plucks just two small birds and then…gives up?

I turned to some letters that Loomis wrote to naturalist Edward W. Nelson of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and later the U.S. Biological Survey, which are reprinted here and were also sent anonymously and published in a lightly-censored form in Science in May 1906. In one of these letters, dated May 7, 1906, Loomis writes:

“As a starter for the bird collection I selected the types of Oceanodroma macrodactyla and as the beginning of the bird library I took your favorite Des Meers. As I wanted to be the first donor to the Academy’s new ornithological library, I put Brown’s illustrations under my arm as I passed the store-room. So you see we made a beginning before the end had come.”

 So, it would seem that Loomis was not stingy with his rescue efforts, and instead managed to save both the two Guadalupe Storm Petrel specimens collected by Bryant and two books. Upon review, it became clear to me that Loomis was referencing Marc Athanse Parfait Oeillet Des Murs’ Iconographie Ornithologique, a magnificently illustrated work from the 1840s, of which the Academy Library has a beautiful copy.


Above, plate of the Scaly Ground Roller (Geobiastes squamiger) of Madagascar, from Des Murs’ Iconographie Ornithologique

When I pulled it from the book from the shelf, I noticed for the first time the notation on the bookplate, stating “SAVED.”


The reference to “Brown” proved more of a mystery, and one that I will revisit shortly in another blog entry. Stay tuned!

-Becky Morin
Head Librarian

Filed under: Academy History,Rare Books — Librarian @ 8:46 pm

January 3, 2013

Ecuador exhibit up in Library Reading Room

Gerald and Buff Corsi (c) California Academy of Sciences

by Mollie Cueva-Dubkoski, Careers in Science Intern

Biodiversity and endemism in the northeastern section of the Amazon is off the charts. The rich diversity of flora and fauna many scientists attribute to the warmer climate of this region during the repeated Pleistocene ice ages that provided shelter to organisms. Scientists estimate there are between 9,000 to 12,000 species of vascular plants, 600 species of birds, 500 species of fish, and 120 species of mammals in and around Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park. This exhibit highlights some of that diversity, the history of European exploration in Ecuador, and the current issue of crude oil that threatens this diversity.

I spent many weeks deciding what to include in the exhibit: perhaps crude oil in a jar? Or maybe a spread of taxidermied animals to demonstrate the diversity of Amazonian mammals? I finally decided on a varied collection of library materials to juxtapose two elements of my research that interested me most: Ecuador’s biodiversity, and crude oil’s effect on the Amazon. If you visit the Reading Room, you will see a sketch of the Andean Wax Palm (Ceroxylon alpinum), drawn by Aime Bonpland,who traveled with the noted naturalist Alexander von Humboldt during the first scientific exploration of the Americas. This book was one of two I included from the library’s vast collection to demonstrate the history of science in Ecuador. In the other case, I have included a map that illustrates the territory most affected by oil production, and a picture of where my family lives in Ecuador. A final piece that finished off the exhibit were the specimens the Entomology Department and the Ornithology Departments generously loaned me. In the left glass case there are several shiny Green-Gold Scarab Beetles (Chrysophora chrysochlora) and a lovely Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao) specimen that boldly demonstrate what words cannot—how beautiful and quintessential these species are to the Amazon. Working with these three research departments and choosing specimens that highlighted my research enabled me to see how research collections, whether used for a museum exhibit or as evidence for a scientific study, are invaluable to the scientific world.

Arranging specimens in the case. photo: Y. Bustos

Diane Sands (left) and myself laying out an exhibit case. photo: Yolanda Bustos.

Filed under: Connecting Content,Exhibits,Library News,Rare Books,Research — Dsands @ 8:26 pm

A Beetle Browed Smackdown

This Smackdown we feature the largest beetle in the world, Goliathus goliatus. Goliath beetles are often described as the largest and heaviest of all beetles. Adults range from 2-4 inches in length, while the larvae can top 5 inches and weigh 0.25 pounds a piece! There are five different species of Goliathus across the African continent (see this link for a nifty map).

Black and white drawing of beetles, genus Goliathus From Cyclopedia published by Longman, Hurst, Rees & Orme 1810

These magnificent engravings of spiders come from Natural History volume five in the Cyclopaedia or Universal Dictionary of Arts, Science and Literature.  Abraham Rees, Presbyterian minister and educator, produced this Encyclopedia in 45 volumes between 1802 and 1820.  On the title page of the Cyclopaedia, Rees’ 100 contributors are qualified with the “assistance from eminent professional gentlemen” and “illustrated by most distinguished artists”.

18th Century ‘encyclopedists’ developed the modern idea of recording and widely distributing knowledge as distinct from only publishing facts. The still familiar Encyclopedia Britannica was first published between 1768 and 1771. Rees’ Cyclopedia was noted for its high quality of illustrations. And we can still enjoy the beauty of nature through these 19th century engravings.

The publisher of this book put out some beautiful and strange illustrated books in the early 1800’s including Musci exotici :containing figures and descriptions of new or little known foreign mosses and other cryptogamic subjects by William Jackson Hooker. (http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/41803) and A Dissertation on Gunshot Wounds by Charles Bell. (http://www.bibliopolis.com/main/books/1869071/A-dissertation-on-gun-shot-wounds-Bell-Charles-Jeremy-Norman-Co.html) Regardless of the subject it looks like they were masterful printers and included really amazing etchings in their work.

(c) Diane T Sands. Gouache and colored pencil on colored paper

Drawn from specimens housed in the Academy’s Naturalist Center, this color image contrasts the female (left) and male (right) of Goliathus goliatus. For the black and white image below, I wanted to show less of a dead, pinned subject and more of a living critter.

(c) Diane T Sands. Ink on scratchboard

Filed under: Archives,Rare Books,Scientific Illustration,Smackdown — Dsands @ 8:25 pm

July 21, 2011

Connecting Content visits NightLife

Thursday night, July 14, was the Academy’s ‘Crafty’ themed NightLife which featured an array of booths from Bizarre Bazaar selling hand-made items from local artists. The Library and Archives had a chance to discuss Connecting Content, an IMLS grant-funded project, and to talk about collection theory, both historically and within contemporary situations. Of course, our visitors were enacting their own ‘collecting’ by selecting objects and purchasing them from the Bizarre Bazaar booths, perhaps adding these objects to what could be considered a collection at home on their walls, in their drawers, or even choosing to wear them.

There were two parts of this display. First, a table was set up next to the Project Lab that displayed Ole Worm’s (1588-1654) book Museum Wormianum, showing his “cabinet of curiosities” in Copenhagen, finches from the Galapagos Islands often referred to as “Darwin’s finches,” and a photograph of the 1905-06 Academy of Science Galapagos expedition team. Visitors approached this display and were given glimpses into why these people collected their specimens, with Project Manager Daina Dickman available to provide additional information. The second part to this display was the Collections Scanning Intern Stephanie Stewart-Bailey with a desk drawer full of ‘curiosities’ on loan from the Naturalist Center. She wandered around the museum floor having conversations with visitors and playing a guessing game of “what do you think this object is?” Through this display Stephanie hoped to introduce the idea to visitors that collecting occurs first due to curiosity.

This game fostered the idea that collectors found these animals and other such specimens, curious. The second step after noticing something was curious was to draw out further knowledge from them. Stephanie then showed the visitors the table with the Library and Archives display of examples of historic natural history collections.

By participating in NightLife, the Library and Archive’s Connecting Content project was shown directly to the public, initiating participatory discussions with visitors over collection theory and how some projects at the California Academy of Sciences deal with both historic and contemporary collecting methods.

–Stephanie Stewart-Bailey

Filed under: Archives,Connecting Content,Library Events,Rare Books — Archives & Special Collections @ 2:32 pm

April 22, 2011

Map Madness!

My name is Tristan Campbell, for the last two weeks I’ve been an intern in the library here at California Academy of Sciences. I’m in the last year of a three year Masters program in Library, Archives, and Information Sciences at the University of British Columbia, and one of the requirements of the program is a two week practicum/internship. Most people in the program do these at local institutions in Vancouver, but I was lucky enough that there is a UBC connection here through librarian Rebecca Morin who had a database project I could work on.

The quick answer that I give when people ask how I chose my Masters program, is that I want to connect people with information, preferably through computers, and ideally using open source software. So when the opportunity to build a database for the California Academy of Sciences Library using open source software came up I jumped on it.
I’ve spent my time here building a database for the map collection here in the library using USGS maps, and up until now access to them has been managed using hand written indexes prepared by a long-time volunteer. The amount of work that must have gone into hand writing those indexes is incredible, my job was to build a database that could use and preserve those indexes. The database is very much a work in progress, my time here was far too short to put all of the data from the indexes into the database, and there is some work to be done by a library volunteer before the whole system is complete. But the basic structure is there, and it will be very useful for providing access to the map collection.

Two weeks is far to short a time to spend at a place like this, but it has been quite an experience. The work environment could not be more supportive and positive, and the materials they have here are amazing. One day, just for a change of pace, I got to help turn the page of the Audubon on display in the Library reading room, amazing. I had pretty high expectations coming here, and the experience has been far better than I had hoped for. So huge thanks to Rebecca, the Library and Archives team, and everyone else at California Academy of Sciences who have been so good to me, I only wish it could have been for longer.

Filed under: Library News,Rare Books — Intern @ 3:29 pm
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