What’s the oldest book in the Collection?

by Shannon Robinson, Queensland Museum Librarian

The Museum library has just over 2400 titles within the Rare Books Collection, spanning publication dates from the 16th century through to the 20th century. Over half, 1450 books to be precise, are from the 1800’s! Much of this material is irreplaceable and, being paper-based objects, in a fragile state. These factors contribute to placing these items in a climate-controlled, restricted access room to ensure their longevity and availability to future generations.

Seeing these items in their current locked up state, it’s easy to forget they initially were found in labs, offices and on shelves in libraries, being reference texts with the latest discoveries of their time. Nowadays they’re historical artefacts, valued for their hand coloured illustrations or being prized as the volume containing the first description of a species.

The oldest book in the collection, Libri de piscibus marinis (aka ‘Summary of Marine Fishes’) by Guillaume Rondelet published in France in 1554, is one of the earliest known undertakings in modern ichthyology to scientifically describe fish known to Europeans at the time using the physical specimen – common practice now, but ground-breaking at the time. Rondelet (1507-1566) is most widely known for this body of work today, but when published in the 16th century, he was renowned as an anatomist, botanist and science professor.

The author is responsible for both the Latin text and woodcut illustrations within the 600 pages. An impressive feat at any date in history! Before the advent of photography, naturalists such as Rondelet embraced printing techniques to include illustrative descriptions of species from woodblock prints to lithographs to engravings.

While this book features around 250 fish species, he extended his scope to include mammals and invertebrates, such as the lobster on page 583 (pictured)…as well as some fantastical beasts, such as the ‘Sea Lion’ and ‘Sea Bishop’ (pictured). These inclusions are exceptions to Rondelet sighting the specimen, so how did they make their way into the book? According to historians, Rondelet did rely on other physicians and their recounting of sightings or stories. It’s been recorded that Rondelet would neither confirm nor deny their actual existence – interpret that as you like!

image 1
De Astaco, lobster, Book XVIII, page 538, woodcut illustration from Guillaume Rondelet‘s “Libri de piscibus marinis”, published in LyonFrance in 1554. Queensland Museum Library rare book.
image 2
De pisce Episcopi habitu, sea bishop, Book XVI, page 494, woodcut illustration from Guillaume Rondelet‘s “Libri de piscibus marinis”, published in LyonFrance in 1554. Queensland Museum Library rare book.
image 3
De Monstro Leonino, sea lion, Book XVI, page 491, woodcut illustration from Guillaume Rondelet‘s “Libri de piscibus marinis”, published in LyonFrance in 1554. Queensland Museum Library rare book.

The Smithsonian Libraries have digitised their copy of this book, available at the Biodiversity Heritage Library

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