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The Birds and the Bible

Yesterday, I visited a library with a young friend of ours. That in itself should be a topic of a post. Young man in a library is just about as rare as the collections we went to see. My point was to show him priceless works that are incredible to behold in the context of our digital lives. The Beinecke Library holds one of the world's largest collection of rare books and manuscripts. It is also one of the largest buildings that houses such gems. The collections include original works by Charles Dickens, D. H. Lawrence, George Eliot and Greek and Latin works that date back centuries.

Flanking the center of the library are two large exhibits. On the left is John Audubon's original book of giant watercolors called Birds of America. And on the other side are two volumes of the Gutenberg Bible. I kept going back and forth, not able to get enough of the history, geography, and technicalities encompassing these items.

But let me begin with the main stack. It rises up brilliantly like a monolith in the center of the six story building, encased in glass and controlled climate fit for these rare masterpieces. There is shelf after shelf of bound volumes with dates such as 1472. Thinking of the journey of the books through many centuries and many hands, left me in a state of happy overload.

The stacks have highly sensitive fire sensors and an intricate system that can deliver a flood of Halon and Intergen to douse a fire. And in case of pests - think beetles - the library has innovated a method of deep freezing the books at -33F for three days as a pre-treatment. A fitting home, indeed.

John Audubon's gigantic book called The Birds of America sits in an impressive air-tight enclosure. Audubon painted most of the birds himself and incorporated a few sent by others. The book contains 435 colored prints which are 39 by 26 inches in size and published between 1827-1838. You think 435 is ambitious? Consider this: in 1820, Audubon had declared his intention of painting every bird in America in its natural habitat. In the process he found 25 new species. He sold his art through subscription at a time when watercolor was not cool. He connected with talented engravers who helped him produce about 140 copies of his art. Here's plate number 181, of a Bald Eagle with a rabbit in its claws. The production of Birds of America cost him the equivalent of $2M in subscription fees in today's money. Yowzer.

On the other side sits The Gutenberg Bible which is the first book printed from movable type in the western world. It was printed in Mainz Germany by Johann Gutenberg around 1455. Before that, books were produced by hand after laborious copying. Gutenberg printed only 200 copies - 170 on paper and 30 on vellum, parchment from the skin of a calf. Only 21 complete copies remain in libraries across the world, with five of them in the US. This copy - with two volumes - came from a Benedictine Abbey in Austria. Goosebump time.

I'd be remiss if I didn't tell you about the jaw dropping architecture of the library. It seems to float on a quiet base through which we entered. The exterior consists of geometric shapes. On the inside, the marble lets in natural light in a muted orange glow through the veins in the stones. It's the most surreal of experiences. Here's a picture from the internet because none of my photos did justice to its grandeur.

In the end, the young man was incredibly impressed and I was glad that I held dinner hostage so he would get to see these masterpieces.

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