Museum Revealed Podcast [Ep 5]: Rare Book Collection with Librarian Shannon Robinson

Spotted our big and small finches at the museum yet? Brisbane Festival is now in full swing. To celebrate all things birds, today on the next episode of our podcast we are talking to our Librarian Shannon Robinson about Queensland Museum’s rare book collection. In particular John Gould’s The Birds of Australia publication.

Listen now on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Let’s meet our guest: Shannon Robinson

Shannon started work as the Librarian at Queensland Museum’s Research Library in 2018 and is responsible for the maintenance and development of library collections and archives. Librarians are information and collection managers, meaning it’s their job to make their collections discoverable and accessible to library users. In her role, Shannon manages a collection that spans rare books, archives, journals, general books and special collections focussing on natural history, in particular the natural history of Queensland. A day in the life of a museum librarian involves cataloguing, preparing loans and copies for staff and other libraries, answering archive queries, photographing rare material for preservation, providing research support and, of course, shelving.

Queensland Museum Library

The Queensland Museum Library was founded in 1876 with the purchase of Charles Coxen’s private book collection. Through exchanging the Museum’s publications with other institutions and through gifts and purchases, it has since grown into a large and comprehensive collection representing the broad subject interests of the Queensland Museum. Read more here.

Interested in learning more?

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RB: Welcome to the Museum Revealed podcast brought to you by Queensland Museum Network. Join me, Dr Rob Bell, as we chat to the people that make museums so fascinating. The curators, the scientists and the researchers, we take a deep dive with conversations with these story tellers that inspire us to be curious about our past, make sense of the present and most importantly, help us consider our future. Joining us right now is Shannon Robinson, who works in the Queensland Museum’s library and rare book collection. Tell me a little bit about your role at the museum. I, for one, didn’t know the museum had a library. So why don’t we start there?

SR: A lot of people don’t know we have a library. It is a research library. So it’s mostly for our staff and also external researchers from universities and other institutions. So I’ve worked in libraries for about 15 years. I started in academic libraries and then I’ve worked in specialist research libraries for probably the last eight years. I do lots in our library because it’s a special library. It’s not just books. It’s also archives, what we call ephemeral collections. So that’s objects, photographs, that sort of thing.

RB: So all kinds of stuff. So not your traditional library that you might go in and just grab the book and look up a few facts. You’ve got all sorts of reference materials that the researchers here might like to have a look at. So what would you say then is maybe one of the stranger things in the library? That isn’t a book.

SR: So probably one of the strangest things. We have a collection called the Thomas McCloud Queensland Aviation Collection. So it was started in the 1960s by the Head Librarian, Ted Wickstead. He had a keen interest in Queensland aviation. Lots of contacts in that field. So he built up the collection through donations from the families such as Thomas McLeod’s family, Kingsford Smith. We have goggles in that collection, pieces of planes, artwork, signed posters, photographs, heaps of photographs.

RB: Well, I suppose, yeah, it’s certainly not the sort of thing you would necessarily expect to find in a library. Is there a Dewey Decimal number for a pair of goggles?

SR: You know, there probably is a Dewey decimal number for a pair of goggles. But not, this collection doesn’t work that way.

RB: So you’ve got a different way to categorise objects. So does this mean that you need to, I suppose, be relatively up to speed with the collections of a researcher comes in wanting information on a particular thing? It’s your job, like most librarians, when someone comes up says, I’m really looking for something like this. You’ve got a nice sort of where to point them.

SR: That’s correct. And part of being a librarian is managing your collections or having things like library catalogues. So that obviously I’ve been here for a year and a half. So I’m still learning the collection as people ask me questions about what they need for their research. So fortunately, there’s a library catalogue, where you can search all this information. But you do need to kind of be able to I mean, Dewey Decimal is great in the fact that it’s a classification system. So you kind of know 500 science. And of course, we have wonderful rare books collection, which is very useful for our researchers even today. It’s good to be able to know what’s in that collection.

RB: Yeah, I imagine like most librarians, they will have that sort of like a sixth sense of once you’ve been there a while. I know the sort of area of the book that is going to help you out because it’s helped several people out before.

SR: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. It’s institutional knowledge that obviously you build up over years. And fortunately, a lot of the staff here are very helpful and are able to point me to the things that they love in the collection. Oh, have you seen this? Let me show you.

RB: Excellent. So getting, I suppose, back to books, because that’s probably where most people what most people think of when they think of a library. What are some of the rarer books that you’ve got in your library? I imagine you’ve got some being a museum. It’s not just a reference collection for people. You’ve probably also got some pretty interesting rare books.

SR: That’s right. So the library collection here at the museum actually began in 1876, and that was because the museum purchased a collection from the scientists at the time. Charles Coxon was heavily involved in the instigation of Queensland Museum. So they were actually working scientific reference text. And back in the eighteen hundreds, I guess it was that period of enlightenment where there was a lot of research and investigation exploration going on. So it’s the first time a lot of species were identified, illustrated. So it’s that that history. That is still referred to today in scientific work. We have things like expedition reports which are the like oceanic pioneering voyages that occurred in eighteen hundreds. So, you know, they would take, you know, maybe 10 years with it, exploring the oceans, visiting countries, collecting specimens, you know, writing in their notebooks. They come back mostly to England and write up their findings. So, you know, that’s why there’s a lot of they rely on illustrations from artists. They’re absolutely beautiful.

RB: I was going say so some of these books are literally handwritten in hand drawn. Well, they’re published.

SR: Yes, they’re published work. But yes, there’s a lot of hand colouring on the illustrations.

RB: Before I could just jump on a computer and get it right. Well, it wasn’t even that long ago that scientists and I know some still do, would look down a microscope and literally draw what they saw.

SR: That’s right. So we also have notebooks and diaries which are handwritten. One of those is by John Gilbert, who was the assistant to John Gould. They came out to Australia during the 1840s to document Australian birds, which resulted in an impressive seven volume set and 250 editions. So the museum library actually has a complete set of that. So one of the 250. It’s about 50 centimetres tall and there’s 600 plates across the seven volumes where they have illustrated. So they’ve roughly sketch the birds. They collected specimens and after completing this work, John Gilbert came back to Australia and joined Leichardt on his expeditions and had cut pages out of other books that they produced annotating. So updating the information. It’s kind of like a scrapbook – cutting and pasting. He’s got this teeny tiny handwriting scrapbook and there’s these feathers. But he’s pasted into the book and that’s all just still sitting there as sort of a snapshot in time I guess.

RB: Well that’s also such a great thing to have. So have you got anything in the collection that’s older than that?

SR: Well, our oldest book is from 1554. So it’s written in Latin. And the author is Rondelet. I can’t obviously say the Latin title for you, but this translation is Summary of Marine Fishes. So this book is it’s prized because it’s the first time in sort of that modern scientific era where a complete book was written, identifying species. It was also cutting edge at the time because he illustrated he did woodcuts, prints of specimens he was actually seeing, so previously it was kind of like word of mouth. Oh, hey, this person saw this. And then they’d sort of illustrate based on words where he was actually looking at the specimens, although because it is 1500s of people did like to imagine what was in the ocean. So he does have some fantastic beasts in there.Yeah, he has, like, you know, half man, half fish. Well, the thing. When his reported trip he said, I will neither confirm nor deny if this is actually true specimen.

RB: We’ll come back shortly and hear a little bit more from Shannon about some of the interesting artefacts in the collection.

RB: Welcome back to Museum Revealed podcast. We’re chatting with Shannon Robinson, who works in the museum library. And I just wanted to pick up on the oldest book in your library, which you let me know was from 1554. I have so many questions about this book. Still, for one thing, does the paper differ to the paper books would be made of traditionally? I mean, it must be a little bit different.

SR: It is different. The paper is actually thicker and its rough edges as well. So it kind of be roughly chopped.

RB: It hasn’t come out of the sort of the printing press at the shop downtown.

SR: Absolutely not. The early days are from publishing books.

RB: Well, that’s right. In the printing press had only been around for 100 years or so. And tell me, is it. How do you preserve a book like that? Is there any damage that’s been done to it over the previous whatever, or 500 odd years?

SR: There definitely has been damage done to the book. This book actually has evidence of bookworms through it, which I found fascinating coming into this collection.

RB: So bookworms are a real thing, not just in people who like to read.

SR: Exactly. Yeah. And they do really burrow in so I can totally get the expression book worm. They leave little holes. So a lot of the books in the rare book collection are quite fragile, partly because, you know, obviously the early days of publishing, printing, the binding was the hand sewn. And these were working books. Scientists of the day were referring to them constantly. So some of them falling apart from their spines.

RB: So in its time, it would have had quite a bit of use.

SR: Definitely. Yeah. It would have been well-loved throughout the time.

RB: And I can only imagine how a book from today would look in 500 years.

SR: It probably wouldn’t hold up quite so well. I do not.

RB: Tell me, do you have a favourite book in the collection. There a lot of books the collection. You’ve already mentioned a couple of favourites. Is there anything there that stands out, I guess, in your time?

SR: So since I’ve been at the museum for a short time, I keep finding like my new favourite item. I will say that John Gould’s Book of Australian Birds, those seven volumes are just lovely to look at. But since I’ve been here, I have discovered that a Brisbane natural historian, Silvester Diggles, not long after the Gould books came out, decided that he should make an every man’s version because obviously Gould’s books were very expensive to purchase. So he had an ambitious attempt at doing this. He had sketched himself maybe 600 plates, but was only able to actually publish 167. But he was doing it like a serial publication subscription. They came out sporadically across the time and the museum was able to collect them and say, well, they were sold to the museum. So as they came out, the library received copies.

RB: So you get sort of both iterations.

SR: That’s right. And his illustrations are equally lovely to look at.

RB: So tell me, with these older and rarer books, how do they come to be in the Queensland, for example, the book from 1554. How does that come to be in the Queensland Museum has it come from a private collection, presumably?

SR: Some of our books do come from private collections. So the Queensland Museum Library collection has developed through donation, but also through purchasing. And so for the Rondelet book, that was actually an exchange with the Australian Museum. We gave them some items from our museum collection. And in return, they had two copies of this book and so we were able to get that as well. One can read two books at once. Well, it sounds like a good deal all around. Yes.

RB: no one can read two books at once. Well, it sounds like a good deal all around. Excellent. Now, I want to get on to something that I’ve been told is in the library, and I hope you can tell me a bit more about it. I gather there’s something in there that belonged to Dr. Seuss. Probably not his real name, but anyway. Tell me a little more about that. Everyone knows him as Dr. Seuss, so let’s call him Dr. Seuss.

SR: Everyone knows him as Dr. Seuss, so let’s call him Dr. Seuss.  What we have is this great publication from 1943. It was put out by the U.S. War Department. The book is called This is Ann and she’s dying to meet you. It’s about a mosquito. And it’s for the soldiers. In World War Two and was to kind of give them some information about malaria and how to avoid it.

RB: Well, it’s sort of like a public service announcement that we might do this or a slip, slop, slap campaign. Yeah. But back then back then, you’re probably an equally important cause. But it’d be done by doctors.

SR: That’s right. So when you look through the font, the illustrations, it’s very Susseun. Well, yeah, it’s a great little read. And we were lucky to get that into our collection because a local entomologist who specialised in mozzies Dr. Elizabeth Marx donated her collection specimen collection. And this actually was part of the paperwork that came with it.

RB: Who would have thought Dr. Seuss would be saving soldiers from malaria? All thanks to now the Queensland Museum Library. That’s fascinating.

RB: Shannon, thank you so much for joining us on the Museum Revealed Podcast it’s been fascinating. And to everyone out there who’s been listening. What did you uncover in this episode? Are you interested in learning more? Well, you can follow the Queensland Museum on social media @qldmuseum or just head to the website qm.qld.gov.au. and you can sign up to the e-news list while you’re there. Don’t forget, there are show notes to go along with this episode. You can click on that and find out even more about some of the things that Shannon has mentioned like that really rare book. Until next time. Stay curious.

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