Audubon's 'Birds' now in flock on one Web site


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For the first time, all 435 paintings in John James Audubon's masterwork, "Birds of America," can be seen in their delicately painted glory on the Internet.

It's another innovation in Web access to major scholarly and historical material by the Digital Research Library of the University of Pittsburgh.

The images were posted yesterday on its site: digital.library.pitt.edu/a/audubon/.

Last month, the digital library and Pitt's university press teamed up to post the text of more than 30 titles in the press' Latin American Series.

While some images of Audubon's collection were available on a few Web sites, the Pitt site is the only place where every image can be found, said Michael Dabrishus, assistant university librarian for archives and special collections. Pitt's site also provides a link from the specific bird to its description in Audubon's "Ornithological Biography," a five-volume text companion.

The project is a major element of the university's plan to digitize the entire Darlington Memorial Library that was launched 18 months ago. Among the library's more than 15,000 items of Americana was the rare "double elephant folio" of Audubon's work.

Lawyer William McCullough Darlington acquired a bound book in 1852 for $400 to add to his collection of 11,000 books, as well as maps, paintings, magazines and pamphlets of regional and national interest. The family estate, Guyasuta, was near Sharpsburg.

There are only about 120 of these folios in existence, said Edward Galloway, coordinator of the digitizing operation.

Originally sold on subscription basis between 1827-38, the work was priced at $1,000 and was unbound. Its value today is about $9 million, said Dabrishus, who added that the Carnegie Museum of Natural History also owns a folio.

"Double elephant" refers to the size of the paper. It was the largest available for printing presses of the day, about 50 inches in length, but, as Galloway pointed out, Audubon attempted to draw the birds life-size, so many of the images are small. The plates were printed in London and hand-colored.

Web site visitors can order reproductions from "Birds of America" through a link. Proceeds will aid the library's preservation efforts.

Darlington's daughters donated his collection to Pitt in 1918. They gave the university $1 million in 1925 to create space for a library in the plans for the Cathedral of Learning.

The library opened in 1934 on the sixth floor of the building, with shelving and furniture from Guyasuta as well as reproductions of decorations and furnishings from the Colonial period. Additional rare materials on the region have been donated from other collections over the years.


Correction/Clarification: (Published Mar. 5, 2008) The value of the double elephant folio of John James Audubon's "Birds of America" is approximately $9 million. This story as originally published Mar. 4, 2008 on the University of Pittsburgh's project to post the folio's contents on a Web site incorrectly stated the value.

Post-Gazette book editor Bob Hoover can be reached at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.


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