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2003-03, 337, Book Reviews, Colin Steele

‘An Odyssey in Print. Adventures in the Smithsonian Libraries.’ By Mary Augusta Thomas.

Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002. 179pp. ISBN 1 58834-036-8.

The Smithsonian Institution Libraries support and work with the twenty-two Smithsonian Museums and Research Centres. Together they encompass 1.5 million books and manuscripts. Knowledge of their collections, particularly overseas, is often overshadowed by the impact of neighbouring libraries such as the Library of Congress and the dynamic nature of the Smithsonian museums like the Air and Space Museum.

An Odyssey in Print should help to rectify any misconceptions about the richness of the collections. This attractive book contains numerous colour illustrations and is very competitively priced at US$29.95. The book essentially complements the exhibition which is on show at the National Museum of American History until December 2003. Highlights can also be seen at www.sil.si.edu/exhibitions/Odyssey. Nancy E Gwinn, the Director of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries hopes that this sumptuous volume will stimulate the reader “to make a real journey to Washington DC and a virtual journey to our website to sample more of the splendors to be found”.

Michael Dida in an introductory essay, “Realms of Wonder”, provides an enthusiast’s back-drop to the treasures of the Smithsonian by emphasising their value through their collection of books and bibliographic artefacts. He states, after visiting such an exhibition it “leads one, for a moment, away from the hub-bub and heartaches of the daily whir, so that we begin to think about more serious matters … the mere presence of great books can make one eager to measure up to them”. Mary Augusta Thomas in a longer introductory chapter provides a detailed historical voyage throug the Smithsonian libraries.

The exhibition itself is split into three parts: exploration of the physical world, journeys of the intellect and flights of the imagination. All sections are lavishly illustrated. The first section, “Journeys over Land and Sea”, visits the world as the Europeans knew it and follows the expansion of the European world-view through European and American explorers, cartographers, and botanists. Items included in this section range from early maps and engravings to a 1511 edition of Ptolemy’s Liber Geographiae and a pop-up book of the science fiction comic strip Buck Rogers. Several signed works of early aviators and space explorers are displayed, including one by the three astronauts who travelled to the moon in July 1969.

The second section, “Journeys of the Mind”, features the great books of scientific discoveries and has as its theme, the exploration of “vistas of the intellect”. Items range from a 1641 edition of Galileo’s Systema Cosmicum to Charles Darwin’s 1850 first edition of On the Origin of the Species. Many of the books on display reveal the hand-written annotations of later owners showing the discursive nature of scientific communication. The third section, “Journeys of the Imagination”, looks at the creative solutions writers and artists have displayed for depicting art on the printed page. Examples range from books on architecture, furniture and photography to garden design. An insight into the Smithsonian’s large trade literature collection is exemplified in colourful commercial catalogue displays which manage to make rubber shoes and steel pen nibs attractive.

An Odyssey in Print sets a benchmark in production standards, readability and cost for exhibition catalogues/histories. Print and virtual combine to constitute a defining symbol of an outstanding cultural institution.



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