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'Behind the Scenes' of the Sir C.M. Yonge Collection - Part 1


JCU Library Information Resources staff, Anna Gibbons and Stephanie Morton, have spent many hours working on the task of cataloguing the rare books in the Sir C.M. Yonge Collection. Both Anna and Stephanie said they had found cataloguing the rare books a fascinating and challenging process.
Pictured L-R with rare books from the Sir C.M. Yonge Collection are Stephanie Morton and Anna Gibbons, Library Officers, Metadata Services. Photo: Bronwyn McBurnie.
“We have adapted and created original catalogue records for items that are mostly from the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries, written in English, French, German, Dutch, Norwegian, Danish, Italian and Latin, and so translating the bibliographic information has often been a challenge in itself,” Anna said.
“With so many unique items and books in different languages, this has been a valuable learning experience for us, particularly for our metadata skills. We’ve had to describe bindings, artists and production details for plates and illustrations, inscriptions, handwritten notes and letters slipped into certain books, and imperfections (such as uncut pages or pages/plates bound incorrectly),” Stephanie said.
Anna found that one the most exciting things about the work was discovering the skill and workmanship that went into creating and binding some of the books.
“The incredibly detailed engravings and hand-coloured plates (on some of which the brush strokes are visible, or the colourist didn’t quite stay within the lines - RB0148 and RB0127 to name a couple) of beautifully illustrated fish, molluscs, corals and all manner of creatures, as well as maps and scenes from around the world, was a real highlight for me,” Anna said.
Anna Gibbons, Library Officer, Metadata Services. Photo: Bronwyn McBurnie.
Stephanie was also impressed with the sheer artistry that had gone into the hand-coloured engraved plates (RB0022), large folded maps, and books with intricately detailed bindings or gorgeous illustrated covers (RB0170)
“Anna and I have been continually running back and forth between our desks to share new discoveries,” Stephanie said.

“I really enjoyed working collaboratively with Anna on two of the more complex multi-part books: Zoologia Danica (RB0135), unusual due to all five parts bound into a single volume; and Traité général des pesches (RB0146). Another book, The Natural History of Norway (RB0140), contained a very entertaining chapter on sea monsters, including Merpeople, giant sea serpents, and the kraken, based on “real-life” accounts the author collected and believed to be true – though he noted that leviathans were most likely just whales,” she said. 
An illustrated page from Traité général des pesches (A general treatise of fisheries). Photo: Trisha Fielding.

Stephanie found that the books she most enjoyed working on were those that required some deeper research. 
“The history behind one of the oldest books in the collection, Thesaurus imaginum piscium testaceorum (RB0136), published 1711 in Latin, turned out to be quite fascinating. It was published posthumously with engravings done from drawings done by Maria Sibylla Merian, a talented scientific illustrator and entomologist, who did not get credit for her contributions to the book. Genera of recent and fossil shells (RB0004) was originally a mystery – two volumes without title pages, pagination, or publication details. It turned out to be a complete set of pamphlets originally published in 42 parts from 1821-1834 detailing a total 232 genera with 265 original colour plates,” Stephanie said.
“Working out the correct authorship, artists, and the history of the work to determine what I had in my hands was highly satisfying and challenging. I discovered an interesting gem slipped into Illustrated index of British shells (RB0106): a loose hand-illustrated sheet titled ‘Families of British Shells’, containing a labelled table of 55 shell families (sketched from the book’s plates, with annotations that match annotations throughout book) plus a piece of tracing paper used to create the table. We believe it was created by C.M. Yonge and are working to confirm the handwriting,” she said.
Stephanie Morton, Library Officer, Metadata Services. Photo: Bronwyn McBurnie.

When asked if she had a favourite book in the collection, Anna said it would be very difficult to choose just one. 
“Certainly the ones I’ve already mentioned, simply for their stunning illustrated plates, and an album of 130-year-old pressed seaweeds (RB0130) for the absolute delight of seeing their perfectly preserved beauty. However, being from England and with close family in Norway, there were several items in the collection that struck a personal interest to me while cataloguing them. RB0221, a book on molluscs of the fjords around Bergen, Norway, included a compliments slip from the author which revealed that he was a Reverend of the rectory at Burnmoor, Fence Houses, Country Durham; a church located two minutes from my childhood home and a place I have passed countless times. It was funny to me that this book should land on my desk, in Townsville, North Queensland,” Anna said.

“Discovering handwritten letters stashed between the pages of books has been like finding hidden treasure, such as the letter around 150 years old inside RB0058. The letter provides an index of recently discovered mollusks, with a personal note to the addressee squeezed on the end asking about his wife and children, and whether he has been on any ramblings during the summer,” she said.
A handwritten list of molluscs, hidden between the pages of one of the rare books in the Sir C.M. Yonge Collection. Photo: Trisha Fielding.
“I also enjoyed a little story that I stumbled across from the start of RB0076. Before the author’s voyage to Spitzbergen, Norway, he recalls his visit to Whitby, a North-East England fishing town, where he claims the ‘coastal peasants’ believed that the spiral-shaped stones on the beach were in fact snakes that had been collected by an old lady using spells and incantations to then break their necks and transform them into ‘petrified snakes’. There are so many intriguing stories and hidden treasures (amongst the obvious treasures) in the Yonge Rare Book Collection and it has been an absolute pleasure and professional delight to describe these wonderful items in detail.”

If you missed earlier posts in this series - you can catch up here

* Read more about the Sir C.M. Yonge Collection
** Browse the titles in the Sir C.M. Yonge Collection

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