First Trip to the Huntington Library

Last week while on a trip to Los Angeles, I went to San Marino to visit the Huntington Library. The library is part of a larger estate with art museums and gardens, but because I only had half a day to visit, I spent every minute in the library that I had been reading about for several years.

Today, the library has around 400,000 rare books and over a million ephemera going back to the 11th century.  The library continues to collect into the present to remain one of the best libraries and scholarly research centers in the world, and it all started with Henry E. Huntington.

Huntington was an avid rare books collector, and I have enjoyed reading about his obsession with collecting. He started around 1911 and for about fifteen years dominated the book markets and bought the collections of other well-known collectors, and used his massive railroad fortune to build one of the most amazing libraries in the world.

I saw several “firsts” for me at the Huntington, including a Book of Hours, books by William Caxton, Aldus Manutius, Chaucer, Newton, Ptolemy, Galileo, Pliny the Elder, Einstein, Twain, Darwin, and Dickens. At times it was challenging to contain my excitement.

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The Gutenberg Bible on vellum at the Huntington Library

At the library, I saw my second Gutenberg Bible on display. This copy was on vellum. The Gutenberg Bible that I saw at Harvard’s Widener Library was on paper. The Huntington’s copy of the Gutenberg Bible was created for an institution and was larger than other copies. It had small, rectangle pieces of vellum sewn onto the edges of the paper to serve as tabs throughout the book, and had large, metal straps and clasps on the cover. It was breathtaking.

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John James Audubon’s Birds of America

I also saw the library’s copy of John James Audubon’s Birds of America along with one of the plates that had been used to create one of the images. I have been learning more about woodcutting, engraving, and the printing process. I have one artist book with wood engravings by Richard Wagener, printed by Peter Koch. Wagener has produced another book from the desert plants at the Huntington Gardens so I couldn’t help but think of looking through that artist book while at CODEX 2017 in January while looking at Audubon’s Birds of America.

I had a couple of mild frustrations with the way the exhibit was presented. First, it was impossible to see the bindings and the covers of the books adequately and part of my interest was in how the rare books had been bound and also to see what types of repair work might have been done over the centuries.

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Huntington Library Main Exhibit

Second, the library had been converted to a museum exhibit with electronic means of interacting with the guests and large signs that I thought detracted from the feel of the library as a sacred place of quiet reflection. Yes, I’m a traditionalist when it comes to libraries. The exhibit experience reminded me of when I volunteered at a museum center in Cincinnati. During one season we were tasked with working with the museum curators to put up a traveling exhibit from Egypt and were told that in the process of selecting what would be in the exhibit, we had to put up more replicas of items than the real items, even though the real items were available to exhibit. Why? Because the replicas were gold and shiny and the originals were dull and old and the average person visiting a museum is more attracted to shiny objects. The descriptions on the items also had to be shortened significantly and digital overlays were added everywhere to read the longer versions of the descriptions of items to people. (This reminds me of the book Mickey Mouse History about the dumbing down of how society learns history and remembers the past) At the Huntington, there were also several groups of people being loud and chatting in a disrespectful manner and a few families with young children who would spend no more than a minute noisily running through it all, and it was distracting. I would have preferred the books on permanent exhibit to be in another room and for the library to be an actual library as it might have been seen in Huntington’s days of collecting.

Third, the exhibit showcased books in chronological order along with commentary surrounding religious, social, and political events for those time periods. However, many of the books in the collection that would have also been in play at those time periods were separately located in the exhibit related to science in another area of the building. Without those books by Galileo, Einstein, Newton, Darwin, etc., the primary exhibit’s timeline was heavily slanted towards religious texts. Someone who did not know history as well, might not have noticed that this perspective was missing and get a skewed view of what was going on during that time period. A reference note pointing people to the science exhibit somewhere in there would have been useful for context.

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Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species

The permanent exhibit in the library, “Beautiful Science: Ideas that Changed the World,” was phenomenal. Looking at these rare books in their historical context from the 16th century to the present was so moving. You could see the influence from one great scientist to the next as each built upon the other and battled the resistance of ideas and change from religious and political figures. I would have appreciated even more history and details on the labels by each book, but I turned to wikipedia on my phone a few times to fill in the gaps where I couldn’t remember my history from certain time periods. To be that close to books written by these famous scientists and in several cases owned and written in (association copies) by them, was a moving experience.

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Journal entry by Octavia E. Butler

To the side of the library, they had a temporary exhibit of the life and work of Octavia Butler, a 20th Century African American science fiction writer who received the first MacArthur “genius” award given to a science fiction writer. Most of the books in the display were typical of mass market publications in their design and quality of binding. The exhibit contained more ephemera and photographs than books. What captivated me the most were Butler’s personal journals and motivational writings that she did for herself. Being one of the only African American women writing in science fiction, she faced isolation and frustration many times in the course of trying to do what she wanted to do the most – tell her stories. It was an inspiring exhibit.

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Display about book repair at the Huntington Library

Throughout the entire visit, I had questions that I would have loved to have asked one of the conservationists at the library regarding the condition of a book or why they were displaying it a certain way or if what I was noticing on a binding was evidence of repair work or was this the original binding, and if not then when would that work have been done? Maybe one day I will be able to obtain that level of access to get more questions answered. Finally, in a small conference room on the other side of the main library exhibit, I found a small display discussing the preservation and conservation of the collections. I was familiar with most of the explanations here because it involved basic book preservation and repair work and the tools they use. One item that was useful was a small box with samples of different materials used for printing, including parchment and vellum, with descriptions of whether it was calf skin, goat, or other. I sat for several minutes reading and feeling each sample.

My goal for the next visit to the Huntington would be to attempt to gain access to the research center to see if I could actually curate an exploration of rare book bindings in their collection and work with someone there to study them in person.


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