Buffalo is a living library of great collections, each amassed through some combination of smarts, money and good timing.
From the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s peerless masterpieces of modern art that pepper the pages of art history books to the world-renowned trove of James Joyce manuscripts and letters that draw scholars from around the globe to the University at Buffalo’s Poetry Collection, this city proudly protects many of the great accomplishments in the history of art, architecture, science and literature.
So it stands to reason, in this Rust Belt Alexandria of modernity where we can freely wander through one of the first skyscrapers ever constructed or peer into the complete handwritten manuscript of Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” that the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library’s extraordinary, centuries-spanning “Milestones of Science” collection has been somewhat overlooked.
For the next two years, visitors to the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library can come face to typeface with original versions of some the most earth-shattering, mind-rattling pieces of scientific literature ever written, including definitive and often lavishly illustrated works by Copernicus, Galileo, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, René Descartes, Johannes Gutenberg, Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci.
The collection, totaling 197 books and stretching from the great books of antiquity reprinted on Renaissance-era presses to the scientific and medical discoveries of Marie Curie, was acquired by the Buffalo Museum of Science in 1937 and 1938 through an innovative fundraising campaign that tapped members of Buffalo’s ethic communities to pony up for books by their revered countrymen and women. It was fortuitous timing, coming at a point when the books were available for bargain prices and just before World War II would obliterate so many of Europe’s physical and intellectual treasures.
“With the present state of affairs in the world, it would be impossible today to either initiate or complete any such program,” Museum of Science director Chauncey Hamlin in a 1942 speech to Buffalo’s Thursday Club. “Many of the great booksellers from whom we obtained items have since been bombed out and the end is not yet. Many of the items in our collection may never be obtainable again.”
During a financial crisis in the 1990s, the Museum of Science traded the Milestones collection to the library as part of an innovative and controversial trade. Since then, the collection has been safeguarded in the library’s rare book room, shown piecemeal in the library’s small exhibition space or through appointments.
The current display of several of the books in a newly constructed exhibition space on the library’s largely empty second floor delivers on a long-held desire from library staff and the community to provide more access to the books after they were acquired from the Museum of Science.
“One of the goals that we have had for quite some time has been to find a place where we can advance the exhibits we have on our rare and special collections. We have beautiful things and they’re not ours, they’re the people’s,” library director Mary Jean Jakubowski said. “This is the first of what we believe will be a long history of the library bringing out the treasures we have in our rare collections.”
The library’s exhibition features 35 books from the “Milestones of Science” collection, each presented in glass cases with complementary objects from the Museum of Science and other local collections. Here’s look at five of the most eye-catching and important books on view:
Nicolaus Copernicus’ “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres,” published in 1543 at the end of Copernicus’ life and presented here open to a page containing his radical diagram of the universe and in an original cover made from recycled Medieval manuscripts, sent the entire scientific and religious establishment of Europe into a collective tizzy by suggesting that the sun was at the center of the universe. It was the first book that entered the collection. “He does not really suffer the aftermath of its publication, but it is a banned book,” rare book librarian and exhibition co-organizer Amy Pickard said. “You could say that Galileo paid the price for advancing this theory.”
Galileo Galilei’s 1632 book “Dialogue Concerning Two Chief World Systems,” which amplified Copernicus’ work to near-heretical levels, was enough to get him investigated by the Roman Inquisition and put under house arrest for the rest of his life. It was the price he paid for changing the world, a much more severe punishment for challenging the status quo than his fellow “Milestones” astronomers Copernicus and Johannes Kepler.
Galen’s “Opera Omnia,” a classic text of classical medicine based in part by its author’s treatment of Greek gladiators injured in battle and emperors suffering various maladies, was reprinted in this magnificent 1490 edition. It is a brightly colored fusion of Medieval and Renaissance printing techniques, with title pages lavishly hand painted and headings hand-drawn in colored ink (a Medieval process called “rubrication”), resulting in a book that retained the look and feel of a Medieval manuscript but was mass-produced with movable type.
Vesalius’ “On the Fabric of the Human Body,” published the same year as Copernicus’ most famous book in 1543, launched the study of anatomy as we know it. For centuries, it remained one of the definitive texts on medicine, replete with accurate illustrations of the human skeleton and musculature. On one of the pages on display in the library’s exhibit, Pickard said, “you see him with a hand in the female body, and that’s very significant. Autopsies or surgeries were performed by people other than physicians, usually barbers and things of that nature. Here, Vesalius is very assertively hands-on. And this text was just groundbreaking for the study of anatomy.”
Agricola’s “De Re Metallica” may not be one of the sexier-seeming titles in the collection, but it remains something of a bible for the study of geology. What sets it apart is its collection of meticulous woodcuts, which Pickard said “show every process, all the tools, all the things associated with mining.” It is a book that in many ways helped to accelerate the Industrial Revolution.
One of two leafs from the Gutenberg Bible, the first major book printed using movable type, is on view in the exhibition in order to give some context to the other books on view, each of which traces its existence in part back to Gutenberg’s movable type system in the mid-15th century. “It’s amazing what it enabled us as humanity to achieve,” said Pickard. “And this little gallery is an example of that.”