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Celebrating 10 Years of BHL with Jacob Hübner

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In early June the online Biodiversity Heritage Library —of which Cornell University Library is a contributing member— continued its 10 year anniversary celebration with a commemorative showcasing of favorite titles, each nominated by BHL partners for their qualities as rare, monumental or groundbreaking publications in the study of biodiversity research over the centuries.

Check the resulting “BHL at 10 Notable Books Collection” and you’ll see Cornell’s nominee for inclusion in this illustrious line-up: Hübner's Papilio, a bound volume of exquisitely drawn, often charismatically colored specimens from a couple of moth families of the order Lepidoptera.

What’s so special about this title? To begin, it’s an extremely rare work—the Cornell copy stored here in the special collections at Mann Library, a donation by renowned Cornell Professor of Entomology John Franclemont, appears to be one of only five copies that are in existence this side of the Atlantic. And it has a fairly remarkable history. German entomologist Jacob Hübner (1761-1826) is best known for his seminal publication Sammlung Europäischer Schmetterlinge, a foundational study in the field of entomology that provided a pioneering listing—the most comprehensive of its time—of different Lepidoptera specimens collected across Europe. His Papilio volume, an illustrated inventory of moths of the Sphingidae and Bombycidae families in the Lepidoptera order, was probably a continuation of this work. But Hübner died before finishing it, and after his passing, other leading German entomologists of the day, Paul Geyer and Gottlieb Herrich-Schäffer, took charge of Hübner’s unpublished manuscripts. In the case of Papilio they stewarded the gathering of the moth illustrations into one volume as a collection of illustrations accompanied by little text other than a listing of the illustrated specimen names, identified via the prevailing taxonomic system of the time. Vulnerable in its rarity—it’s not clear that more than a very few copies of Papilio were ever released—the volume that found its way to Cornell thankfully survived the all too often ravaging vicissitudes of history. The copper plates that were used to create the illustrations, however, did not. Found stored in an old Berlin warehouse in the early 1900s, they were melted down for copper wiring during World War I.

Much like his Sammlung, Hübner’s Papilio represents a painstaking contribution to the study of the insect world’s astonishing diversity. If every picture tells a thousand words, then Hübner's work is utterly loquacious. Browsing in between the marbled book covers, readers will quickly be awed by the attention to minute detail that Hübner and his collaborating illustrators applied to their observation. Many of the specimens depicted are extremely delicate and winsomely small, some are quite plain, others flash riotously bold patterns from tiny wings, and more than a few startle with that famed trick of evolutionary history: the exquisitely arresting mimicry of a predator’s gaze.

Intricate as they are, the illustrations found in each of the five North American copies of this early 19th century work were all colored by hand. As such, slight variations exist among the plates with regard to the depiction of the moths presented. In taxonomy, such variations can be critically important. When faced with thorny questions of species identity—say, for example, final determination of the actual wing pattern of a species in question—taxonomists relying on old texts will need to compare illustrations presented in different copies of the same title for a definitive resolution. Which returns us to the point we started with at the beginning of this blog: The importance, some would even call it magic, of this volume’s existence—thanks to digitization efforts of the 21st century—as a virtual resource, easily accessible to the world via the Biodiversity Heritage Library.For both the specialized scientist and the general public alike, Hübner’s Papilio in the BHL collection underscores a simple but powerful thought: The value and joy of being able to look closely and take note of even the smallest or most fleeting elements of our natural world—for these have some beautiful visuals to share with us, and some important lessons as well.