“New” Old Books and Maps Now on View

After a brief hiatus, Extraordinary Ideas from Ordinary People has reopened its doors with some brand new displays. Over the past two years, we have been turning the pages in our rare books as frequently as every three months to protect the beautiful hand-colored images so they are not exposed too long to the light. Even then, we need to allow the books themselves to “rest,” which means removing them from public display and placing them in their original storage conditions in our Rare Book Room. Ensuring the books rest means we have the opportunity to bring out different objects, giving visitors the opportunity to see something new.

One “new” and completely unique item on display is the original herbarium, or pressed plant book, belonging to Kate Sessions, known as the “Mother of Balboa Park.” The book was a gift from Kate’s mother on Kate’s 15th birthday. It features pressed plants from the 1800s that Kate collected in her travels, dried carefully, and artfully arranged on the pages. It demonstrates, in a very personal way, Kate’s deep interest in plants, even at an early age. Because this was an item Kate protected during her entire lifetime, it is evident how much she treasured it.

We are also displaying a very rare book published in 1655, which documents one of the earliest European collections of natural history objects. The collection belonged to a Danish man with the strange name of Ole Worm, who is also the author of the book. Worm’s Museum (Museum Wormianum in Latin) describes his collection of strange objects—everything from bones to coins to turtle shells to armor plates to narwhal tusks. Now, some 360 years later, we can marvel at the collection of one of history’s earliest “hoarders!”

Other books include a huge volume representing part of a fantastically illustrated catalog of one of the so-called early “Cabinets of Curiosity.” This particular collection of natural history objects from all over the world was assembled by Albertus Seba, an apothecary living in Amsterdam from 1655–1736. A very wealthy man, he assembled a vast collection of birds, insects, shells, mammals, plants, fossils, reptiles, and other treasures. Then he hired the very best artists to illustrate his precious specimens for posterity. The illustrations are a marvel.

On the upper level mezzanine, we are featuring a rotating display of beautiful hand-colored maps of early San Diego, the Southwest, and other regions of the world. Our oldest map on display is from 1792; it is a very detailed map of the island of Jamaica, with tiny details such as individual homes, churches, and other landmarks. These maps draw the viewer in and elicit amazement at the skill involved in early map-making—prior to computers, GPS, and any other modern tools. 

We’re pleased to display these “new,” old items. It offers something different for our visitors to see and ensures the books that need to rest can be carefully tucked back into their cases, with appropriate measures to monitor light, temperature, and humidity levels so they are kept safe for posterity. After all, we want them to last another five centuries.



Posted by Margaret Dykens, Research Library Director.

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