Behind the Scenes at the American Museum of Natural History

By Micaela Walker

Tour of the American Museum of Natural History’s Library and Special Collections

Micaela Walker

On November 17 I was lucky enough to attend a tour of the Library and Special Collects at the American Museum of Natural History which was arranged by Pratt ASIS&T chair Heather Hill.  The library is located on 2 floors of a building within a courtyard surrounded by other buildings.  The tour was given by the Senior Research Services Librarian, Mai Reitmeyer and she began by showing us on several archival drawings and photographs where, exactly, we were.

The AMNH is notoriously difficult to navigate and now I understand why; the museum is comprised of 28 buildings interconnected over an area covering 4 city blocks. There are buildings within buildings, buildings that can only be accessed via certain elevators to certain floors.  It is a labyrinth of knowledge.  The museum began in 1869 in a building within Central Park, which it quickly outgrew.  Calvert Vaux, one of the architects of Central Park, helped with the initial design of buildings on the site where the museum now stands. However, new buildings and facades were being added and redesigned until 1936.

Illustration of an early design plan for the AMNH

Illustration of an early design plan for the AMNH

 

Mid construction photo of the Museum in 1878

Mid construction photo of the Museum in 1878

Along with the library, which is in building #1, the museum has over 200 research scientists and curators working in earth and planetary science, astrophysics, paleontology, anthropology, zoology, invertebrates,  several vertibrate departments, one of the largest frozen tissue labs in the world, and a PhD program in comparative biology.  This is, of course, only behind the scenes workings – the exhibits and educational programs  that are open to the public are immense and expansive.

The physical library holds over 1 million photo items including prints, transparencies, and contact sheets organized in rows of filing cabinets and cataloged by area of study (ie geography).

Print (and bust) storage

Print (and bust) storage. The painting at the end was an illustration for the cover of a magazine AMNH used to print.

 

Librarian Mai Reitmeyer

Librarian Mai Reitmeyer

 

Digitizing their existing collections of prints, negatives, journals and field notes is an ongoing process that has to be done carefully by hand.  The library has this clever device to scan books, with two cameras and lights placed at the perfect angles to capture pages that are gently pressed into a glass V called the Book Eye scanner.

Book Eye Scanner

Book Eye Scanner

 

They use EAD as their encoding standard entered in XML when adding the scans and their metadata onto their digital archive, a low res version of which is then uploaded to their online archive, which currently has over 25,000 items in it’s database (http://lbry-web-007.amnh.org/digital/).

They have partnered with Internet Archive to offer images through their platform, which has nearly 4,000 AMNH scanned items (https://archive.org/details/americanmuseumnaturalhistory).  Additionally, they have a Flickr photo stream that includes everything from collection items to student drawings from it’s education programs (https://www.flickr.com/photos/amnh/).

They are currently scanning field notebooks from various 19th and 20th century anthropologists and scientists, which will all be available to the public online.  Ms. Reitmeyer, as with nearly everyone I have met in the field since starting the MSLIS program, is more excited about the opportunities that all of this open access affords the museum to connect within it’s own community of scientists and researchers, and to the general public, than fearful of any possible copyright violations or misuse.

Next Ms. Reitmeyer took us to the rare book section which is accessible only with two staff members present to open the door. It looks like an old safety deposit vault only less grand and more utilitarian, with metal shelves surrounding a high central viewing table.

 

Mai holds up a rare and very large book in the rare book collection

Ms. Reitmeyer holds up a rare and very large book in the rare book collection

 

There are some seriously big books. And very old fragile ones. The textures of the various crinkly, thick papers feel more like pelt than pulp. Among the treasures she showed us were a page from Charles Darwin’s manuscripts, books from 1551 and 1558 complete with spines intact, books of outrageously whimsical hand colored fish by Louis Renard, a rare copperplate of an owl by Alexander Wilson, and John Gould lithographs.  Each item is encased in an archival box that is custom made by the conservation staff. All told we had a firsthand tour of 400 years of printing methods in about 20 minutes.

Page from Charles Darwin's manuscripts

Page from Charles Darwin’s manuscripts

 

Fish by Louis Renard

Fish by Louis Renard

 

Copperplate by Alexander Wilson

Copperplate by Alexander Wilson

 

Lithograph by John Gould

Lithograph by John Gould

 

On our way out we got a look at the negative storage lined up perfectly in identical archival boxes and an entire room of audio and film storage covering nearly every format created. The goal is to have everything digitized and, where possible, made available to the public.

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We finished the tour as the museum was closing up so I went to say hello to the Titanosaur and catch a glimpse of some of the iconic (if ethically troublesome) animal dioramas. As I left the building I caught sight of this gem by Teddy Roosevelt, carved into the gargantuan wall above the check-in.  I took a picture because I thought my sons could use a bit of fortified, timeless advice like this, but actually I think we would all do well to follow it.

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