Published: March 6, 2017

Four Fascinating Finds in the Rare Book Room


Shelves of large, ornate books in different colors (green, brown, red, blue), many with gold designs emblazoned on their spines

The Field Museum’s collection includes many different objects: dinosaur bones, dried plants, and ancient artifacts, just to name a few. But there’s another fascinating collection here that you may not expect: books. They’re located in an active, working library, where researchers can make appointments to pore through books and documents on a wide range of subjects.

Within the library is the Rare Book Room, an area containing books that are old, oversized, or, indeed, rare—perhaps even one-of-a-kind. The Rare Book collection is made up of 7,500 volumes and 3,000 pieces of art, all cared for in a humidity- and temperature-controlled room. There are even handwritten letters from Charles Darwin, and a journal kept by John James Audubon.

Diana Duncan, technical services librarian, and Gretchen Rings, reference and interlibrary loan librarian, shared just a few of the many fascinating finds in the Rare Book Room:  

Audubon’s 1826 journal

A browned piece of paper with ornate cursive handwriting

One of the most impressive items in the Rare Book collection just might be John James Audubon’s The Birds of America (1827-1838). This work by the famed ornithologist comes in four volumes that are “double elephant folio” size—or about 50 inches tall. The Birds of America also includes 435 hand-engraved and colored plates depicting all known species of American birds at the time.

Perhaps a humbler Audubon book, but one that’s equally interesting, is the manuscript of his 1826 journal. This is Audubon’s personal account of his voyage to Scotland and England, where he hoped to get The Birds of America published. The page pictured here is dated "26 April 1826" and begins, “I left my Beloved Wife Lucy Audubon and my son John Woodhouse on Tuesday afternoon the 26th April, bound to England…”

The ultimate bookworm's book

Black and white illustration of a room filled with many different types of objects, including bones, animals, rocks, and other artifacts

Museum Wormianum is fascinating for a few reasons. Published in 1655, it describes the natural history collection of a man named Ole Worm, accompanied by detailed illustrations. Worm, who lived from 1588 to 1654, was a Danish doctor (Wormian bones, or extra bones in the skull, are named after him). But he was also an avid collector of antiquities and curiosities, ranging from fossils to minerals to man-made objects. This illustration from the book showcases his cabinet of curiosities, a sort of personal museum made up of an assemblage of objects.

In a twist of fate, the physical book is wormed, or has holes made by pests that we commonly refer to as bookworms. Despite the misnomer, these tiny book lovers aren't worms at all. Rather, “bookworm” is a general term for the larvae of a variety of book-boring insects that are attracted to the materials found in antiquarian books. The best way to prevent bugs from making a home in your old books is to use them regularly. If you do notice bug damage, most books can be put in a plastic bag in the freezer to kill off any larvae, and sticky traps can be used in your library to catch adults and keep them from laying more eggs. 

Close-up view of an open book with symmetrical holes chewed by an insect

United States Camel Corps

A book open to two pages showing black and white illustrations of camels, one with one hump and one with two.

Ever wondered if the U.S. government has issued an official report about using camels in the military? The answer is: yes. This report was published in 1857, just before the start of the Civil War. In fact, it was issued under the direction of the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis—the soon-to-be president of the Confederacy. The short title of the document is, “Purchase of Camels for the Purpose of Military Transportation.” It describes an experiment that involved bringing camels to the Southwestern United States to see if they would prove useful for military transportation. The group of camels was nicknamed the “Camel Corps.” 

This report contains the correspondence of various military officers involved in purchasing and transporting camels from several countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Davis writes in the report, “Under the appropriation of $30,000, made on the 3rd of March, 1855, seventy-five camels have been imported.” The experiment to use camels for military transportation was short-lived, as the Civil War began.

Tiny tea book

Color illustration in a book, showing monkeys climbing a cliff and picking leaves off trees while people below gather the leaves into baskets

Entitled Du thé, this adorably small French book was published in 1820. Its full title translates to: “Tea, or, New treatise on its culture, its harvest, its preparation and its uses.” Written by a tea merchant known only as F. Marquis, this pocket-sized volume contains detailed illustrations of the origins of tea and its uses around the world. One illustration even advertises “monkey-picked tea.” 

Please note: the Field Museum Library serves Museum staff, visiting scholars and the public. The Main Library is located in a non-public area on the Field Museum's third floor. Researchers with confirmed appointments may visit the Library Reading Room. Learn more about making a library appointment. Rare book materials are available for legitimate research purposes on an appointment-only basis. Learn more about visiting the Rare Book Room