Library Pathfinder Series

Leafing Through the History

Engage with the Arboretum’s rare book collection and other incredible artifacts of history housed at the Sterling Morton Library.

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Leafing Through the History

The Morton Arboretum has been collecting rare botanical books and artwork since it was first established a century ago in 1922. Suzette Morton Davidson, former chair of The Morton Arboretum’s Board of Trustees and granddaughter of Joy Morton, took great interest in the Sterling Morton Library and in botanical art and books. Davidson was instrumental in the growth and development of the library’s special collections, so much so that the library’s Suzette Morton Davidson Special Collections were named in her honor. The library’s Rare Publications Collection consists of more than 5,000 volumes, including journals, nursery catalogs, and books. 

The oldest book in the Sterling Morton Library’s Rare Publications Collection is Historia Naturalis (natural history), written by Pliny the Elder in the first century AD and printed in 1481. The library’s edition was edited by Philippus Beroaldus in Parma, Italy, and is an excellent example of 15th-century bookmaking. 

This is not just any old book; it is considered to be one of the first encyclopedias. From 79 AD (the year Pliny died from the fumes coming from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius) to 1469, Pliny’s work existed only as a manuscript. It wasn’t until after printing was invented in the 15th century that his work became published and available to the public. 

Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus) was a Roman commander and scholar. Pliny was born in 23 CE to a wealthy and well-connected family. He began his military career at age 23, and he went to serve in what is now Germany. Reported to be an eccentric workaholic by his nephew, Pliny the Younger (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus), Pliny the Elder was known to have devoted his life to his studies.