Associate archivist Herbert Finch wrote in 1966, “Ornithology and Cornell have been associated through many years and several distinguished scientists. The departmental records and the personal papers of several ornithologists are contained in the University Archives ….” Today, the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections holds over forty manuscript collections concerning all aspects of ornithology, and over 300 rare books which richly chronicle the history of both the science of ornithology and the art of bird illustration from the 16th-19th centuries.
Centered around a remarkable group of rare bird books given to Cornell by Kenneth E. and Dorothy V. Hill, the Hill Ornithology Collection focuses mainly on North American ornithology and on works published before 1900, but its scope is wide. Historical ornithological books of significance from many parts of the world are included. Holdings range from Aristotle’s Historia animalium and book ten of Pliny’s Naturalis historia through 16th-century works on the nomenclature and classification of birds, 17th-century works on falconry, and early descriptions of American birds by 18th-century British ornithologists such as John Latham and Mark Catesby. Also included is Thomas Bewick’s History of British Birds, the first book to use wood engraving as an illustration technique.
Perhaps the most spectacular part of the collection is its 19th-century color plate books on birds, highlighted by a copy of the double elephant folio of John James Audubon’s epochal Birds of America (1827-1828). A complete collection of John Gould’s 48 major folio volumes on birds of the world is supplemented by multiple editions of Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology, together with works by Charles Lucien Bonaparte, Captain Thomas Brown, Thomas Nuttall, William Swainson, John Richardson, and others.
The manuscript collections document both scientific research in the field and the contributions of amateur birdwatchers. The papers of Cornell faculty members Arthur A. Allen and Peter Paul Kellogg, for example, document all facets of the careers of these two distinguished ornithologists, and include student notes, course and departmental files, field notes and bird observation charts, professional correspondence, manuscripts of articles and books, tape recordings, phonograph records and record masters, slides, glass-plate negatives, lantern slides, photographs, clippings, notes, memoranda, and films.
Perhaps the most prominent of the Division’s ornithology collections is the papers of Louis Agassiz Fuertes, one of the great artists in bird portraiture. In addition to his student notes, sketchbooks, diaries, expedition journals, and correspondence with ornithologists, artists, and naturalists, the Division also holds Fuertes’ B.A. thesis on the coloration of birds, illustrated with the help of a few actual bird feathers.
Ornithology holdings in the Division are supplemented by a vast collection on the modern science of ornithology in the Albert R. Mann Library, and by the reference collection at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology at Sapsucker Woods, which serves the laboratory’s staff and supports its public education activities.