By ERIN ALLEN
“The Milky Way is nothing else but a mass of innumerable stars planted together in clusters,” observed Galileo Galilei after turning his telescope on our galaxy early in the 17th century. He found this band of white light across the night sky consisted of many stars, each of them too distant to be seen by the naked eye.
His book, “Siderius Nuncius” (1610) or “The Starry Messenger,” was the first scientific treatise based on observations through a telescope. Not only did he record his study of the Milky Way, but he also reported on his examination of the moon and his sighting of four objects orbiting around Jupiter.
As a repository for such monumental research, the Library of Congress can now boast its acquisition of the first edition of this seminal work. Newly acquired by the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, the stellar treasure was on display with some 75 new additions to the division’s collections during an open house on Oct. 22.
“This is the largest copy that exists,” said Dan De Simone of the celestial study. The significance, he said, is that Galileo’s renderings in this edition are intact. Other copies, for example those held by Harvard University, are incomplete because the Italian astronomer’s illustrations were trimmed away in the process of rebinding the books.
“The binding from our edition is probably from the time the book was printed, so that’s why it is preserved,” added De Simone.
Walking among the items on display during the division open house in the Rosenwald Room was to journey through times of theological revolution, political evolution, childhood whimsy and national tragedy. Each table displayed a cross-sampling of gifts as well as items purchased by the division during the past two years.
In keeping with the Library’s mission to document all aspects of the events on Sept. 11, 2001, the division has built a collection of books by noted artists who confront and lay bare their feelings in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Examples were on display.
“’Falling to Earth’ by Michael Kuch is probably the darkest book,” said Mark Dimunation, chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. “His studio looked out on the World Trade Center. His poetry and drawings reflect the images of people flying and reference the imagery of Jacob’s Ladder, Icarus, a parachuting Christ. It’s extremely moving.”
Another item, titled “Combat Paper,” began as a writing project for members of the Iraq Veterans Against the War to express themselves in ways other than public action. The project morphed into the Warrior Writers Project and its first chapbook, “Warrior Writers: Move, Shoot and Communicate.”
“The artwork accompanying their writing was produced on paper made from the cut-up uniforms of servicemen and women,” said Dimunation. “It was definitely a protest mechanism.”
Next to these art books that begged consideration for their in-your-face visuals was a colorful arrangement of red, green and blue cloth bindings embossed with gold and silver leaf. Margaret Neilson Armstrong, a preeminent designer of decorated cloth publishers’ bindings from 1890 to 1913, created the bindings for this collection of American classics: 274 works by the Brownings, Washington Irving, Henry Thoreau, John Greenleaf Whittier and others, which the Library purchased in 2008.
“This is a spectacular collection in pristine condition,” emphasized Dimunation.
Recent acquisitions also marked efforts of the division to complete some of its collections. According to Brian Taves, author of the Jules Verne Encyclopedia, “The Library of Congress holds the most comprehensive Verne Collection of any institution outside the writer’s native land.” The division rounded out this particular collection with various editions and states of Verne’s publications, many of which are scarce or unusual in some degree. For example, an 1873 copy of “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” is the first true American edition and is one of only two known copies in salmon-colored cloth.
With a single purchase last year, the Library completed its collection of the work of Vincent Fitzgerald and Company, known for its fine printing of works by James Joyce, Franz Kafka and Jalaluddin Mohammad Rumi.
“What we have here are pieces of culture and human experience,” concluded Dimunation. “They range from telling the stories of ordinary people in extraordinary times all the way up to single books that fundamentally changed the world.”
Erin Allen is a writer-editor in the Library’s Public Affairs Office.