Nestled amidst the rows of books at Hawthorne-Longfellow Library is the Special Collections and Archives wing, which houses the rare collection of “The Birds of America” books by John James Audubon. Since 2016, Bowdoin Special Collections Education and Engagement Librarian Marieke Van Der Steenhoven and Bowdoin Director of Special Cllections and Archives Kat Stefko have hosted monthly page-turnings of the life-sized book. However, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to remote programming last year, the ceremonial page-turnings turned virtual.
The page-turning, though seemingly simple, is a more exciting and substantive event than it seems, according to Van Der Steenhoven. The Birds of America is a collection of 435 life-sized images of a variety of American birds, with handmade touches by Audubon himself.
“It’s a huge book, so you can open it to one page at a time … the pages need to be turned to support the spine of the book so it doesn’t get overextended and it doesn’t break down,” Van Der Steenhoven said. “The light exposure is [also] super important; you don’t want to just have one page open for five years, because the light is going to affect the coloring of the page.”
The book is one of 120 copies in existence, and the College’s edition has unique aspects setting itself apart from the others. This copy of “The Birds of America” is part of a set of eight copies that were edited by Audubon after he sold his first set of copies of the collection.
Previously, the page-turning was held in the Special Collections and Archives room, where the ceremonial page-turning would precede a presentation from a guest speaker. Prior to the pandemic, the event would average around 50 attendees from the College and Brunswick communities. Guest speakers ranged from experts on birds to artists who were interested in the text.
Though the event is now virtual, the tradition of bringing guest speakers every month has continued. This month, a printmaker from Paris spoke about a project he is working on that was inspired by “The Birds of America.” In November, poet Lisa May Hibel ’94 will read works of poetry and discuss her love of nature. For Van Der Steenhoven, the incorporation of guest speakers to the page-turning adds a valuable interdisciplinary dimension to the event.
“The page-turning event is a way to sort of think about how this one book can make connections across all forms of different disciplines and all sorts of different issues, from poetry to climate change to the history of science,” she said.
While still currently virtual, Van Der Steenhoven hopes the event will transition back to in person by next semester with an added online live-stream component.