The University Record, June 11, 1997

The Historical Record

By Patricia S. Whitesell
Office of the Vice President for Research

The University of Michigan Libraries currently contain about seven million volumes. Do you know which was the very first book purchased for the University's collection?

In 1838, two years before the first buildings were constructed for the Ann Arbor campus, the Regents acquired John J. Audubon's Birds of America ---called the double elephant folio---from New York book dealer William A. Colman for $970. The University had grand visions, yet this was an extraordinary first purchase, equivalent to an outlay of about $20,000 today.

The going rate was $1,000 for a subscription to the five-volume folio of 435 hand-colored plates and the accompanying five-volume Ornithological Biography, in which Scottish naturalist William MacGillivray described each species. But Colman offered a discount by piecing together a mixed edition. It wasn't until 1875 that University Librarian Andrew Ten Brook noticed that the fifth volume of the Ornithological Biography, published in May 1839, had never been received.

Gov. Mason, who had earlier subscribed for a copy of Birds of America for the Michigan State Legislature, was present when the Regents authorized the purchase. Also present was Henry R. Schoolcraft, an authority on Native American Indians who later became a correspondent of Audubon. But it was Regent Zina Pitcher who proposed the purchase and corresponded with Colman. Pitcher, a medical doctor and botanist, was most likely more interested in the plants and fruits featured in Audubon's plates to depict the birds' habitat and diet than he was in the ornithological content.

Surprising by modern practices, the books were placed in the general stacks of the University Library, accessible to any patron. As early as 1875, the plates were reported to be showing signs of wear, and many plates are now badly worn. It wasn't until around 1915 that the folio was transferred to the Rare Book Room for protection. The Ornithological Biography remained in the stacks, and the first two volumes disappeared in the 1950s. The complete folio and the two remaining volumes of the Ornithological Biography are currently housed in the Special Collections Library of the Hatcher Graduate Library. A similar Audubon folio recently sold at auction for over $4 million.

The Historical Record examines interesting aspects of the University's history. Send suggestions for future columns to Historical_Record@umich.edu.