Monday, November 16, 2015

Rare books, the Arctic and the Panama Canal, Part 1

Rare books seem old, inaccurate, maybe difficult to understand, so why should I read them?

News and events that were exciting to readers long ago have become iconic in maritime history. Typical are discoveries by Drake, Columbus, Cook, or geographic exploration by Shackleton, Greely and Stefansson, or Pacific naval battles in World War II, adventures of circumnavigators, writers like Robert Louis Stevenson, and shipbuilders such as Matson and Bethlehem Steel.

When a topic resurfaces with a new point of view, new associations are forged with history. 19th century books, much like today’s books, articles, and movies on ecology, tend to focus attention on scientific fact, and on the exploitation of nature and marine life for human gain. Early in that century, exploration of the Poles was news.

Between the 19th and 20th centuries, political world views in tandem with technology were fast challenging old systems. Americans desired to be in control of their political borders, and beyond them, once they were fully aware of their value. To do that required spending money on the means and people needed to achieve control. One instance of this was the building of the Panama Canal.

Although first viewed as topics 100 years apart from each other, now, astonishingly, the Arctic and the Panama Canal are seen together in a surprising relationship. Take the March 2004 article in OCEANUS*, a magazine now online with archives, “How the Isthmus of Panama Put Ice in the Arctic”, a title which begs the question, is this about global warming?

From the ice to the tropics: Illustrations and Souvenir and Travel Photographs

Between the late 1800s and 1940, lacking in the kind of media we are so dependent upon today, avid information seekers turned to books. The books we have from that time are well-illustrated, have short chapters with attention-grabbing headings, and deliver quite readable commentary with many points of reference. In other words, you could read a part, and not the entire book, if time was lacking, or you were searching a particular topic.

A kind of journalism mixed with fantasy prevailed, the illustrations are usually black and white drawings, at times rendering horrific scenes as pretty pictures. The act of killing walruses, or sending workers into swamp-like jungles to cut railroad beds showed that humans ruled and nature succumbed, or so we believed. When a publication featured photographs, the result was documentary or factual in nature, and even more believable.

Awe-inspiring stories recounting travel and conquest of mammals living near icebergs loomed large in the minds of readers who never imagined they would travel there or ever see a whale or other cetacean. Yet, it was possible, even highly probable, that many readers of material on the Panama Canal would soon journey there and survey things for themselves. So the books illustrated with photographs had extra value as inspiration for future travel.

Take a second look at rare books in the Museum’s Research Library.

Two eras in the 19th century, one at the beginning and one at its close, are examples of the rare books in the Museum’s Research Library. They feature the end of the whaling fisheries, and the beginning of cross-continental travel by sea. We start at the top of the world.

*OCEANUS magazine article online is available here.

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