OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Take a virtual tour of OSU’s rare book and manuscript collection

02/02/2012

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Online visitors have a chance to peruse one of Oregon State University’s lesser-known collections this month with the OSU Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives Research Center’s newest exhibit, “Treasures of the McDonald Collection."

The exhibit offers a narrative history of text production and printing from more than 9,000 years ago to the mid-20th century.  The site showcases more than 100 photographs of items from the McDonald Rare Book and Manuscript Collection including ancient cuneiform tablets, medieval manuscripts, and some of the earliest press-printed books in existence.

From the clay tablets of the ancient Middle East to the American industrial printing houses of the 1900s, Treasures explores the evolution of information sharing through the lens of the OSU Libraries holdings.

The McDonald Rare Book and Manuscript Collection was established at OSU in 1932 by benefactor Mary McDonald, the widow of James McDonald, an early California timber and mining magnate.  As a result of a professional relationship with George Peavy, dean of the Oregon Agricultural College (OAC) School of Forestry, Mary McDonald made several contributions to the university.

“When she learned we did not have a rare book collection, she was horrified,” said Trevor Sandgathe, a library technician working with the collection. McDonald first donated her own collection of rare books to the university, and then added more through the years, finally donating an entire room for the collection, which the library eventually outgrew.

Since 1932, the OSU Libraries have added many items to the McDonald Collection. In the 1960s, long-time OSU Dean of Science and bibliophile Francois Gilfillan donated several volumes that became part of the McDonald Collection.  Among his gifts were a number of incunabula, or books printed before 1501, including Tabule Astronomice Alfonsi Regis (1492), an early astronomy text, and a rare 1497 printing of Homer’s Ilias Per Laurentium Vallam In Latinum Traducta.

Gifillan’s daughter Ellen Gilfillan Johnson has made several recent donations, including Francisco Hernández’s Medicarum Novae Hispaniae, the first intensive European survey of the flora and fauna of southern North America, a 1603 printing of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, and a 1481 edition of famed historian Flavius Blondus’ most important work, Italia Illustrata.

Other recent additions to the collection include the first U.S. edition of Charles Darwin’s epic On the Origin of Species, published in New York in 1860, and a beautifully bound and illustrated 1859 edition of François André Michaux’s The North American Sylva, a complement to the McDonald Collection’s extensive botany-related holdings.

The oldest and most delicate piece in the collection is a Sumerian cuneiform dating from 241 B.C. The small tablet is about the size of a bar of soap, and is covered with markings made by a stylus, a small writing utensil. Although it looks exotic, it’s actually a rather prosaic piece, Sangathe explained

“It’s a receipt,” Sandgathe said, of the donation of some livestock to the feast of a Sumerian king. These receipts were often tossed aside in large piles, and weren’t considered to be worth much attention, but now are a valuable piece of history

Some more modern pieces in the collection include letters from John Astor and Theodore Roosevelt, and several series of handsome bound sets with hand-tooled leather and watercolor illustrations. One set, the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, is a “special” special edition that contains a collection of original signatures in the back section, including Lincoln’s.

The McDonald Collection holdings are available to researchers at the Special Collections & Archives Research Center Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.  The center may be contacted at 541-737-2075 or special.collections@oregonstate.edu.