A Peek at Mark Catesby’s Natural Histories

By Kendall Hallberg

Mark Catesby’s 1731 book “Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahamas” is the first published work to document the natural history of the southern and tropical regions. The illustrations and accompanying text detail life in these regions like no other naturalist had done before. You can see his influence in the work of others like James John Audubon. To learn more about these works and about Mark Catesby, you can check out the Catesby Centre. As the graduate student working on this project, I am scanning and working on the metadata for these volumes and prints.

Catesby’s Natural History spans two huge volumes. They are about 350 pages each. What makes them truly large is that they are printed on “Elephant Folios”, or extra-large sheets of paper, which makes it a bit of a challenge to scan. Here in Digital Collections, we use several different scanners, but for this project I have been using the Qidenus, our book scanner, a lot. Between maintenance checks and calibration, it can get a little out of whack from so much use. For example, recently I discovered a slight tilt in the glass frame, while not a detectable problem with a smaller volume, it is a much bigger deal when you are working with such large volumes. But I am nothing if not dedicated to getting it right. It just requires creativity and a lot of foam pieces, of which we have plenty. Below, a time lapse condenses about 25 minutes worth of set-up into a 30-second clip so you can see all the little adjustments it takes to capture the pages perfectly.

Above: Kendall setting up the Qidenus; view is horizontal.

At this point, I have scanned two sets of volumes and a collection of loose prints, however there is still quite a bit to do before this will be completed. After the Qidenus received needed maintenance, scanning has gone by quicker, but metadata will take some time. It is going to take a very collaborative effort with experts across campus to do this collection justice. I look forward to keeping everyone in the loop as we work out the nitty-gritty of metadata for a vast Natural History collection.

This project has been an invaluable opportunity to learn more about what it takes to digitize a rare book collection. It has also been a chance to learn more about the natural history of the area. When curiosity gets the better of me, I occasionally look up the birds and other animals to compare them to Catesby’s accounts. It’s really entertaining to see how the actual animals match up to their representations. Pretty soon, you’ll probably catch me bird watching on my hikes. I have included some of my favorite images from Catesby’s work below. I especially love the “Summer Red Bird” or summer tanager.

“Summer Red Bird” or Summer Tanager
“Summer Red Bird” or Summer Tanager
Southern Magnolia
Suillus, Great Hog-Fish
Suillus, Great Hog-Fish

Watch this space for more natural history and updates on the project!