From the Special Collections: John James Audubon’s Birds of America

On Level 4 of the Main Library, a bibliographical and ornithological treasure rests inside a hundred-pound case: the “Bien Edition” of John James Audubon’s Birds of America. Published in 1858, nine years after Audubon’s death, this edition recreates 150 of Audubon’s life-sized paintings of (spoiler alert) birds of America. Fewer than 100 copies were made, as the publication was interrupted by the Civil War. This hefty tome doesn’t fit neatly on a shelf; it weighs 60 pounds and measures 27 x 40 inches. Only a handful remain, one of them right here in Salt Lake City.

Over the course of decades, Audubon traveled the country documenting a total of 497 different species of birds. Audubon’s work was different from the typical scientific bird art of the time. Rather than basic representations of the birds, he depicted them with an artistic flair, with dynamic poses and interesting composition. The birds were painted in the context of their habitats, and since they were life-sized, they were sometimes contorted into unusual positions to fit within the page. On a macabre note, Audubon achieved this by killing the birds and posing them with wires and thread. Somewhat ironic since his name is now associated with preservation groups.

Audubon’s original publications became a sensation in the UK and Europe, eventually leading to the creation of our version, the so-called Bien Edition. Engraver Julius Bien printed the images using a then-new practice called Chromolithography. Different parts of the image were transferred to as many as six stone plates, each adding different colors to the page one layer at a time. Because of this, some of the colors are slightly misaligned, a reminder of the manual nature of that publishing process.

In 1903, the Salt Lake City Public Library purchased the book for $230 (about $7,500 in today’s dollars) from board member Alfales Young, a son of Brigham Young. The high price raised some eyebrows in the community, but the book was an instant hit. Our edition is well-loved. It never circulated, but for over 50 years it was available for browsing at the Library’s old location at 15 S. State Street. It was eventually stored away, and in 1972 it was placed in the custom display case coated with a special film to prevent light damage. Once a month we turn it to a different page, and a modern recreation stands nearby for browsing. This object is significant as a rare book, a piece of American history, a work of art, an early scientific work, and an example of the chromolithography printing process.

If you’d like to know more, our Special Collections Librarian Cherie Willis recently discussed the book on the City Cast Salt Lake podcast. You can listen to the episode here. You can also find Cherie during her shift at the information desk on Level 4 of the Main Library, and she is happy to share more. If you’d like to study more of Audubon’s work yourself, we have several books in the collection available for check out. Visit our website and search the catalog for “birds of america.”

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