Library Week rare book viewing

14 June, 2009

Wicked Possum in Albertus Seba's Thesaurus
Albertus Seba’s depiction of the southern common opossum Didelphis marsupialis in the 18th century Thesaurus held by the Museum Victoria Library.
Image: Benjamin Healley
Source: Museum Victoria

To celebrate 2009 Library and Information Week, three Melbourne rare books librarians visited Museum Victoria’s library to view some exceptionally precious volumes.

Des Cowley, Curator of Rare and Printed Collections at the State Library of Victoria, was stunned to see original volumes of Albertus Seba’s Thesaurus, since he had just acquired a contemporary reprint for the State Library collection. The Thesaurus – a four-volume folio set published between 1734 and 1765 – contains over 400 engravings of the astonishing natural history collection of Dutch pharmacist Albertus Seba (1665-1736). Museum Victoria owns an original black and white set, plus a set painted at the time by a specialised hand colourist.

Another delight for the visitors was a copy of Aurora Australis, the first book written and published in Antarctica. Produced in 1908 for friends and members of Ernest Shackleton’s expedition, the covers of the books were made from repurposed plywood packing cases. This explains why the word ‘CHICKEN’ is stencilled on Museum Victoria’s copy. The excellent condition and quality of the book much impressed the librarians, given the difficult printing conditions in Antarctica. Pam Pryde, Curator of Special Collections at the University of Melbourne Library, planned to search the university’s stored collections for further Antarctic material.

Museum Victoria’s rare books compactus also houses one of the best collections in Australia of John Gould’s books, including The Birds of Australia and The Birds of New Guinea. The Rare Books Librarian at Monash University Library, Richard Overell, was pleasantly surprised to see the number and range of Gould’s works in the museum library.

Since these valuable and rare books must be treated with utmost care, they are not frequently available for viewing. The museum’s management team also paid the library a visit to take advantage of the opportunity. Visiting scholars and researchers can view the books by agreement with the library.

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