The sciences

Blacker Wood Natural History Collection

Introduction: The Blacker Wood Natural History Collection is one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of natural history works in North America. The collection consists of rare books, manuscripts, archival material, and original artwork relating to vertebrate zoology, in particular ornithology, with significant materials in mammalogy, ichthyology, and comparative anatomy. In addition, the collection holds important works in the history and philosophy of natural history, evolution, botany, zoogeography, and the records of scientific expeditions.

Extent: The collection consists of over 20,000 volumes and over 10,000 pieces of original artwork.

Types of material: Of the 20,000 volumes, the majority are published works, including monographs and periodicals. However, the collection also includes a significant number of manuscript works, which range from field notebooks, journals, and sketches, to original correspondence written by naturalists like Charles Darwin and John Gould.

The collection is also defined by the over 10,000 pieces of original artwork it contains, which include everything from the sketchbooks that precede published works, to in-depth visual studies of bird’s eggs and shells; along with paintings by John Gould and his wife Elizabeth, Edward Lear, Johannes Keulemans, and Joseph Wolf; and important contributions to ornithology by women, such as our series of life-sized watercolour bird portraits by Elizabeth Gwillim.

Blacker Wood is also home to a number of archival collections, such as the papers of the Natural History Society of Montreal, and the Montreal Zoological Society.

Collection highlights: The collection includes many of the landmark publications in natural history, such as early editions of the works of Albertus Magnus, Conrad Gesner, Ulisse Aldrovandi, and Pierre Belon. One of Blacker Wood’s most impressive and unique items is The Feather Book: a work created in 1618 by the chief gardener of the state of Milan, in which all 156 pages of illustrations are made entirely of bird feathers - making these the oldest biological bird specimens in existence today.

The collection is supplemented by many noteworthy illustrational works, such as the 18th century Taylor White Collection of 938 watercolour paintings of birds and animals; a series sketchbooks by René-Gabriel de Rabié documenting the 18th century wildlife of St. Domingo (Haiti); an exquisite large-format edition of Merian Sibylla Merian’s Histoire générale des insectes de Surinam et de toute l'Europe (1771); Samuel Pepys's hand-coloured copy of John Ray's The Ornithology of Francis Willughby (1678); and a first edition of John James Audubon's Birds of America (1827).

Further manuscript highlights include Joseph Banks’ field notes from his voyage to Newfoundland aboard the HMS Niger, along with a meticulous record of the water level of the Ganges river kept by a British Army captain in the early 19th century. The collection also contains quite a number of Darwin first editions, including the original publication in the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London (1858), of the talk given by Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, in which they first discuss their theory of natural selection.

Date range: The collection includes material dating from the medieval period right up to the 20th century. Among the oldest works are Arabic manuscripts dating to the 13th century, and Persian manuscripts of the 15th century; along with a number of incunables, such as the Buch der Natur (1497), which contains the earliest printed illustrations of animals in the Western world.

Language/s: The collection has published materials in English, Latin, French, Russian, German, Scandinavian and other European languages, Middle Eastern languages, as well as some Asian language material.

Geographic coverage: European countries are well-represented, with a strong focus on Britain. Significant collections of Persian, Arabic, and Indian material, along with works from Central and South America.

Provenance: The collection was established in 1920 by Dr. Casey Wood as the Emma Shearer Wood Library of Ornithology. The Blacker Library of Zoology was established separately in 1920, and in the early 1950s the two collections were amalgamated. The majority of the holdings were purchased for the library by Dr. Wood before his death in 1942, however the collection has continued to be added to ever since.

Access to the collection: Approximately 85% of the Blacker Wood collection is catalogued, and can be requested by researchers via the McGill Library catalogue. Uncatalogued material may be requested by contacting the curator. A number of digital collections include material from Blacker Wood, providing access to some digital surrogates: Undescrib'd: Taylor White's 18th-century Paper Museum; The Gwillim ProjectCasey Wood: Birdman of McGill; The Feather Book; Interpersonal BotanyThe Persianate Literary Heritage: Hidden Treasures from McGill's Collections; Strokes and Hairlines: Elegant Writing and its Place in Muslim Book Culture.

Librarian & curator: Lauren Williams, Liaison Librarian (e-mail: lauren.williams [at], telephone: 514-398-1364)

Sir William Dawson Pamphlet Collection

Introduction: Sir John William Dawson (1820-1899) was a geologist, educator and Principal of McGill University (1855-1893). His archival fonds is available as part of McGill Library and Archives’ collections. Dawson was an internationally renowned scholar who authored more than 200 publications relating to geology and paleobotany. As a supplement to Dawson’s archival fonds, Rare Books and Special Collections holds Dawson’s collection of offprints and pamphlets on scientific subjects.

Extent: The collection is comprised of approximately 1750 offprints and pamphlets.

Types of material: The collection consists of pamphlets and offprints; some are bound into volumes, while others are loose and stored in archival boxes.

Date range: Contains material published throughout the 19th century.

Languages: Includes materials in English, French, and German.

Geographic coverage: Includes materials printed in Great Britain, Europe, the United States, and Canada.

Provenance: The collection was acquired in 1901 with the rest of Dawson’s library.

Access to the collection: This collection is uncatalogued, and therefore not accessible through the library catalogue. For requests and questions, please contact the librarian.

Librarian: Lauren Williams, Liaison Librarian (e-mail: lauren.williams [at], telephone: 514-398-1364)

MacDonald College Rare Book Collection

Introduction: This collection was created by the separation of rare, historical and fragile materials from the main circulating collection of the MacDonald Campus Library. The MacDonald Library collections cover the main subject areas of study at MacDonald Campus, including agriculture, food and animal science, nutrition, the environment, ecology, plant science, and agricultural engineering. In 2007, the decision was made to transfer MacDonald Library’s rare materials to Rare Books and Special Collections in the McLennan Library building, so that these fragile materials could be preserved while remaining accessible to the McGill community and the general public.

Extent: As of 2017, the collection consists of approximately 730 printed titles.

Types of material: The vast majority of the collection’s titles are published monographs, however it also includes issues of journals and periodicals.

Collection highlights: The collection includes an impressive number of early titles, such as Jan Swammerdam’s Historia insectorum generalis (1733), and Joannes Jonstonus’ Historiae naturalis de insectus (1653), along with a number of early editions of Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae. It also hosts a number of noteworthy works of botanical illustration, such as Michaux’s North American Sylva (1859) and ­­­­­­Pursh’s Flora Americanae Septentrionalis (1816). The collection also contains an impressive number of works relating to the agricultural history of Canada.

Date range: The collection includes approximately 50 works printed prior to 1800, while the majority of the collection dates from the 19th and 20th centuries.

Languages: Includes materials printed in English, French, Dutch, German, Italian, Japanese, and Latin, with a few items in Czech, Polish, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish.

Geographic coverage: European countries are well-represented, with a focus on Britain and France. Also includes a fair amount of Canadian material.

Provenance: Materials were collected through purchase and donation by MacDonald College throughout the 20th century. The collection was housed at the MacDonald Campus Library until 2007, when they were transferred to Rare Books and Special Collections.

Access to the collection: The entire collection has been catalogued and can be searched via the McGill Library Catalogue. Individual works can also be requested through the McGill Library Catalogue and consulted in the Rare Books reading room. For specific questions about the collection, please contact the librarian.

Librarian: Lauren Williams, Liaison Librarian. Email: lauren.williams [at]; Telephone: 514-398-1364.

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