Caught Between the Pages: Treasures from the Franclemont Collection

Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill.

--Barbara Tuchman

The Scientific Revolution that occurred in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe was ushered in and spread by books. Gutenberg’s invention of movable type revolutionized book production while the development of linear perspective by Italian artists allowed precise representation of three-dimensional objects. The invention of the microscope in the seventeenth century opened up new realms for scientific research. Together, these advancements transformed the study of natural history; nowhere more so than in entomology.

The history of entomology is stored in books. Books are vulnerable objects; it takes no effort to toss them out or give them away when their owner dies or disappears. They are casualties of war, fire, floods and shipwrecks. The act of collecting books is an act of preservation. Nowhere is this more true than with the collection of historical books that Cornell professor of entomology John G. Franclemont donated to the Comstock Memorial Library of Entomology at Cornell University upon his death. In this exhibit, we take a peek at a few of the treasures from this collection and the story they begin to tell of entomology's history. Fabricius, Hübner and Latreille, pioneering entomologists of the late 1700’s are represented with multiple volumes. Important and unusual works from around the world tell of the field's development across the globe. A small book of butterflies from New South Wales, described and illustrated when southeast Australia was, from London's perspective, little more than a penal colony, provides a glimpse into the rich biodiversity of that landscape. A book from Japan is made up of prints made from actual butterfly wings. These books are only a few of many in the collection Professor Franclemont's collection, yet they reveal plenty about its important breadth and depth.

As any collection does, the Franclemont Collection tells us something about the collector. The majority of the books are about Lepidoptera. Professor Franclemont began collecting butterflies and moths at an early age and was well-instructed in the finer points of pinning and spreading them by an uncle. As an entomologist at the Smithsonian and Cornell University, he specialized in lepidoptery. The collection also contains seven early editions of Linnaeus’s groundbreaking work of biological classification, Systema Naturae. During his 30 years at Cornell, Professor Franclemont taught insect taxonomy, and focused his life’s efforts to mentor over 20 doctoral students in insect systematics and to serve on the committees of nearly 30 more. Attesting to his effectiveness as a teacher of taxonomy, at one point, six curators at the U.S. National Museum of Natural History were Franclemont students. Most would agree that they never stopped being Franclemont students even after leaving Cornell.

And finally, what the Franclemont Collection shows us about the collector is the man’s generous and kindly spirit. His beneficent gift of these incomparable historic resources allows us access to over 200 years of the most important entomological writings and illustrations in the world. Thanks to this forethought, wisdom and generosity, readers of today and tomorrow have gained insight to the vast and intricate beauty of profoundly important field of study.

The Franclemont collection is part of the distinctive collections at Albert R. Mann Library. Rare and sometimes fragile, the volumes in this collection are housed in Mann Library's special collections vault. For access and other information please visit Mann's Rare & Distinctive Collections page.