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Ohio Life

Winged Wonder

The Cincinnati public library shares its rare version of John James Audubon's "Birds of America" with the world.

John James Audubon finished his Birds of America four-volume set in 1838, a project he had started 11 years earlier. The publication was immediately recognized as a landmark accomplishment, finding a home in the best libraries and private collections in the world. Measuring 3 feet in height, each page featured a life-size, hand-colored image of a bird native to North America, making each copy of the book a work of art in and of itself.

“Audubon got subscriptions to pay for a product that would one day be completed,” says Patricia Van Skaik, manager of genealogy and local history for the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, which owns an intact copy of the set. Now valued at $12 million, it is one of only 133 complete sets in existence.

“Ours had only been in the hands of really one owner, Dr. [Thomas] Edmonson from Baltimore, who was an original subscriber,” Van Skaik says.

Joseph Longworth bought the book from the Edmonson estate in 1870 and sold it to the library for $1,000 that same year. For decades, the library could only display one volume of the book at a time, with staffers turning one page each week. In order to see Birds of America in its entirety, library patrons would have had to visit weekly for more than eight years.

But thanks to $25,000 in gifts and pledges, the library digitally scanned each of the 435 images, which are now available to view online. The funding also went to purchase new cases that allow the library to display all four Birds of America volumes simultaneously. The cases include custom cradles and slings so each book can be displayed without putting stress on its binding. Preserving the historic volumes is vitally important, Van Skaik says, because many surviving sets are damaged.

“People have cut individual pages out of some of them and sold the page,” she says. “What is special about our collection is all of the [pages] are there, but also the binding.” 

For more information and to view the images, visit cincinnatilibrary.org.

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