The library's collections encompass the precious, the beautiful and the downright weird. During Sydney Rare Book Week, we celebrate these riches, from valuable comics to texts that shaped history.
A 15th century book about witchcraft. A rare comic featuring the first appearance of Spider-Man. A first edition of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica once owned by Newton himself. The University of Sydney Library is celebrating the wonders and curiosities of its collection during Sydney Rare Book Week, 25-29 October.
Hosted by the State Library of NSW in collaboration with institutions across Sydney, this year’s virtual program includes free daily talks about books, memorabilia, historical records and collecting.
“Our rare books collection is a treasure trove of more than 170,000 items, encompassing the precious, the beautiful and the downright weird,” said Julie Sommerfeldt, manager of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of Sydney Library. “We can’t wait to welcome people back to see the collections in person but, in the meantime, there is plenty to explore in our Digital Collections, which offer access to more than 6500 books, manuscripts, photographs, letters and more.
“Our collections have items from many different cultures, countries and periods in time, reflecting the richness of human experience. Rare Book Week gives us an opportunity to make people aware of the treasures that exist in this city that are available to everyone.”
Had engineer John Bradfield been alive today, he might have been a prolific Instagrammer. While leading the design and construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Bradfield documented the process in a series of photographs, compiling them in albums with hand-written captions and notes. Bradfield was the University of Sydney’s first recipient of the Doctorate of Science in Engineering in 1924. His Harbour Bridge albums are now part of the University’s Rare Books and Special Collections.
During Sydney Rare Book Week, collection manager Julie Sommerfeldt will host an online panel discussion about the bridge’s history, drawing on this photographic record and featuring experts from the University of Sydney, the Powerhouse Museum and Moore Theological College.
The Sydney Harbour Bridge: an Australian icon, 27 October 2021, 4-5pm.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, bread baking, cocktail mixing and binge television have been popular sources of lockdown entertainment. In 1665, Isaac Newton took a more productive approach. After fleeing Cambridge for the countryside to escape the bubonic plague, he laid the groundwork for his revolutionary theories on calculus, optics and the laws of motion and gravity. He later published Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, one of the most influential scientific books ever written. The University’s first edition copy of the Principia, currently on display at the Chau Chak Wing Museum, is believed to have been owned by Newton himself. It is one of just four known copies Newton sent to other mathematicians, seeking help to eliminate errors for a second edition. There are notes in the margins by Newton and his assistant Roger Cotes, as well as handwritten commentary from other mathematicians.
Spider-Man made his debut in the 1962 comic book, Amazing Fantasy #15. The comic told the superhero’s origin story, with Peter Parker gaining his powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider. When it was published, the comic cost 12 cents. Pristine copies are now avidly sought by collectors. The University library has its own copy – one of a number of rare comics in the collection. “For us, the comics are a significant resource for teaching and education in areas including design and printmaking, media studies and gender studies,” said Sommerfeldt.
An Australian communist utopia in Paraguay? What could possibly go wrong? Quite a lot, as it turned out. In the 1890s, journalist William Lane led a group of Australians to Paraguay, with the aim of founding a New Australia, dedicated to the principles of equality and mateship. These apparently high-minded ideals did not extend to everyone; talking to Paraguay locals was forbidden, due to Lane’s support for racist White Australia policies. Alcohol was also banned. Before long, in-fighting began and Lane himself seceded with a small group of loyal followers to found a yet another New Australia, called Cosme. This colony also failed within a few years. Approximately 2000 descendants of Nueva Australia are still in Paraguay, though the colony was dissolved by Paraguay’s government. The library has a collection of documents, personal papers and photographs relating to the ill-fated colonies, collated by author Gavin Souter for his book, A Peculiar People, and from the family of John Lane, original colonist and brother of William.
Malleus Maleficarum – Latin for “the hammer of witches” – by German theologians Johann Sprenger and Heinrich Kraemer was first published in 1487. A handbook for identifying, catching and punishing witches, it advocated torture for extracting confessions and held that the death penalty was the only sure remedy against witchcraft. It had a strong influence on several centuries of hysteria about witchcraft and the violent persecution of those believed to have practised it. The library has several editions – part of a significant collection relating to witchcraft, the occult and magic.
Henry Lawson might have been lauded for his stories and bush poetry, but some of his letters read like “drunk text messages”, according to Sommerfeldt. Take this 1911 missive to the poet Lala Fisher, who paid Lawson “small donations” in exchange for contributions for her autograph book:
Dear Mrs Fisher
I get drunk because I’m in trouble
And I get drunk again because I’m out of it
Reactions I suppose
The library’s Henry Lawson collection includes letters from contemporaries including writer Mary Gilmore, and letters Lawson wrote from Darlinghurst gaol after failing to pay child support.
The Hortus Sanitatis was published in Germany in 1491 as an encyclopedia of animals, plants, stones and their medicinal uses. It purports to be a factual account of the natural world but the unknown author also delves into mythology, describing creatures such as dragons and mandrakes, which are part-plant, part-human. “We have a first edition of this natural history encyclopedia,” said Sommerfeldt. “It is part of the beginnings of science, as people attempted to document the natural world. But they’d also throw in fantastical beasts they’d heard of through word-of-mouth – perhaps because they wanted the book to sell.”
Sydney Rare Book Week, 25-29 October 2021
The virtual program includes free talks every afternoon at 4pm.