Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Searching Through Dusty Old Books

It is not often that I can naturally weave several disparate interests into one post, but this one comes practically ready-woven. The interests in question are books, art, history and fossils, and this blog is the result of some of my time spent volunteering at Doncaster Museum. I've not been through to help out much, no more than twice a week and some weeks I don't get in at all, but as expected most of my time there involves looking at fossils. I've also spent some of my time there looking through their book collection at the books on palaeontology for anything useful and to get an idea of what's there. Many of the books are from the 1800s and early 1900s and so are scientifically out of date. It is quite interesting that there are duplicates of many of the books yet I can't fathom why.

A lot of the books have some breathtaking artwork adorning the pages, showing incredibly detailed renderings of fossils where nowadays we would simply have taken a photograph. A beautiful example of this is the ichthyosaur image below:
The particular book that this was in is quite the whopper as well, here it is being modelled by Dean Lomax:
Much of the palaeontological information in it was outdated, but the images are gorgeous and the information is still quite interesting. In this particular book, Memoirs of Ichthyosauri and Plesiosauri, Extinct Monsters of the Ancient Earth, by Thomas Hawkins, some of the prose is quite fascinating. There are elaborate descriptions which seem of no relevance to the aim of the book and seem almost like an acid trip in florid Victorian prose. If only I had copied some of it, it was a riveting read in its own way.

Some of the books piqued my interest for historical reasons, as seeing the name of a prominent scientist of that time can be quite exciting. The most exciting one perhaps is the book which contained contributions from many notable names. Off of the top of my head I remember Darwin, Huxley and Marsh in the book, yet I remember recognising at least double that. I'll have to go back and check it again. A common contributor to the books from the 1800s was Sir Richard Owen, who appears to have penned several monographs which the museum owns copies of. We took interest in his monograph on the pterosaurs, the front page of which can be seen here:
My favourite page in this monograph was the image of a Dimorphodon which folded out and appears to have been actual size:
It is perhaps a little sad that the information in the books was mostly useless to us, except if we wanted to trace historical changes in interpretations and classification. The artwork was exceptional, almost photographic in some and it is a shame that the same sort of time and effort is rarely put in these days. Finding the names of historically important scientists as contributors to books and journals was always interesting and of course, the subject being fossils they were not too dull to look through (some were, but then some scientists are so systematic that a huge, picture-less volume on bryozoa is hardly going to get you drooling).

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