Published: December 10, 2015

Treasures Revealed: The Mary W. Runnells Rare Book Room

On the third floor of The Field Museum, hiding among labs and offices, is the Mary W. Runnells Rare Book Room. Located adjacent to the Library’s Reading Room, about 7,500 volumes and 3,000 pieces of art are contained within its temperature-and humidity-controlled space.

What qualifications does an item need to call the Rare Book Room home? There are a variety of reasons. Scarcity is one example. It may be one of only 20 existing copies of a book, or the only one. Provenance matters. Previous ownership can be important, as evidenced by a signature or bookplate with the name of a noteworthy individual. Was it an author’s personal copy? Is the work of historical significance in the field of natural history? Additionally, most books published before the nineteenth century and pieces requiring more delicate care will be found here.

So what are some items kept in the Rare Book Room?

Early natural history books

De Aquatilibus, Libri duo is a sixteenth century natural history book by Pierre Belon, published 200 years before the creation of the Linnean classification system scientists use to describe species. The sixteenth century was a transitional period in modern ichthyology. Like his contemporaries, Belon based most of his scientific descriptions on his own observations. He and other naturalists did not completely break with the past. They included fantastical creatures taken from folklore or sailor’s tales in their works such as the Hippocampus shown above.#### Maps

E. A.W. von Zimmermann created this eighteenth-century map titled, Tabula Mundi Geographico Zoologica Sistens Quadrupedes Hucusque Notos Sedibusque Suis Adscriptos. One of the first of its kind, this map displays the locations of mammals all over the world. The print is so small, it’s easiest to examine with a magnifying glass.

This 1969 map, Flowers of Tierra Del Fuego, is by scientist and artist Rae Natalie Prosser de Goodall. Goodall was born in Ohio but in 1963 she relocated to Venezuela, where she initially worked as a teacher. Goodall then began collecting and illustrating the flora of Tierra del Fuego, an archipelago at the southernmost tip of Chile and Argentina. Since there was no flora map of the area, she produced this map herself. 

Books containing real specimens

This 1787 volume is titled, A Catalogue of the Different Specimens of Cloth Collected in the Three Voyages of Captain Cook, to the Southern Hemisphere. Oddly, the identity of the author remains unknown. Its pages contain real samples of bark cloth collected on the voyages of the British explorer and navigator, Captain James Cook. Barkcloth is made from the fibers of tropical tree bark and was often found in Asia, Africa and the Pacific.

This book is a work on medicinal plants by Charles Millspaugh, the first curator of botany at The Field Museum. In this piece, Millspaugh’s original illustrations are on the left, complete with notes and ink spills. On the right is the final proof. As a bonus, the book also contains actual plant specimens within its pages.

Oversize books

Shown at the top of the photo,The Bishop Collection : Investigations and Studies in Jade Vol 2 (1906) is stored on its side due to its impressive weight. Commissioned by Heber R. Bishop, it showcased jade objects, household items, weapons and jewelry from his personal collection. This volume calls the Rare Book Room home because it is from a limited series of only 100 copies.

A Nobel Prize winner’s novel

This novel, L’Herbe (The Grass) (1958), was written by Nobel Prize winning author, Claude Simon. The volume is one of a limited edition of 47 copies and includes a handwritten page of Simon’s manuscript. This edition is particularly unusual because of its shadowbox cover, which contains various plants and insects.

While it seems like older books would need more delicate care, it’s younger books that are more at risk and in need of attention. Mass production over the last 100 years has resulted in paper with far less stamina when it comes to wear and tear. Older books, like those from the 16th through the 18th century, are bound to last and they’ve fared pretty well, especially with the help of the Rare Book Room.


Alyssa Schroer is a Digital Content Intern in Communications at The Field Museum