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Audubon's Birds of America, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections

Collection Profile

In October 1831, William Campbell Preston, a graduate and trustee of South Carolina College, was traveling south by coach from Richmond. Among his fellow-passengers was a tall bearded artist, hunting subscribers for a massive new publishing project. It was John James Audubon, who wrote to his wife, "Col. Preston thinks that the College at least will subscribe." On December 17, 1831, lobbied hard by Audubon's Charleston ally John Bachman, the South Carolina House narrowly agreed (Yeas 51, Nays 50) to purchase Audubon's Birds of America, for $800 (the final cost was $925.50). It was an act of faith, as only 125 of an eventual 435 plates were yet available, and it was the first definite commitment by any American state to purchase the greatest of American illustrated books. The final numbers arrived from Charleston by ox-cart in 1838.

Audubon's Birds of America was originally a work of science. Bachman wrote that it "will be a standard work for centuries; ere then, we will be among the planets studying something else." It remains distinctive in four ways: its ambition, because it aimed to provide life-size engravings of all known North American bird species; the quality of its hand-colored engravings (for the engravings, Audubon went to Britain, first to Lizars of Edinburgh and then Havell in London); its size, “double-elephant folio,” about 28 by 40 inches; and the extraordinary price that sets have commanded at auction. Of fewer than 200 sets produced, 120 survive complete; 33 are in ARL libraries, though only three ARL universities (South Carolina, Harvard, and Columbia) were among the original subscribers.

Libraries differ from museums in providing a research context for their treasures. The 1831 legislative committee asserted that "the College library already contains all other works on American ornithology," so that Audubon's work "is necessary to perfect the class of work on that subject." The college did purchase many of the relevant contemporary books and journals, and others have been added since. Ornithological holdings range from Belon, Aldrovandi, and Jonston in the Renaissance, through Willughby, Catesby, and Edwards, to such contemporaries as Wilson, Selby, and Gould. The collection includes Audubon's other works including his Ornithological Biography, his Synopsis, the Vivaparous Quadrupeds donated by Governor Adams in the 1850s, and a variety of octavo editions, as well as books about him. Additional individual engravings, including examples by Lizars, Havells, and Biens, were donated in the 1970s by Jennie Haddock Feagle. Related recent gifts have included the Emily Pope Brown collection of natural history watercolors, the C. Warren Irvin Jr. Collection of Charles Darwin, and Bachman and Audubon manuscripts donated by James P. Barrow. Other natural history collections include botanical books from the Richard Wingate Lloyd and Phelps Memorial Collections and watercolors by the lepidopeterist John Abbot.

The Havell Audubon is now valued and studied, not as science, but as art. Recent growth in South Carolina's special collections has focused on other areas, notably literature and history. Nonetheless, the landmark acquisition of 1831 resonates as a continual reminder that a single major purchase can have a lasting influence in the development of a library and the university it serves.

Collection Profile and Overview: Patrick Scott
Illustrations: Keith McGraw and Jeffrey Makala

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