Of all the wonderful things a great library can be, “a vessel for preserving the natural world,” may not be the first thing that comes to mind. But the library can be a preservational space as significant as a national park or a wildlife preserve. Not just in words and images, but in actual specimens. Take, for example, the copy of a rare and unusual book by Elizabeth Allom, The Sea-Weed Collector, found at IU’s Lilly Library.
Both England and America saw a surge of interest in nature collection across the nineteenth century, as what had been called “natural history” began to narrow itself into specialized disciplines. Algology — the study of what we know today as algae and corals — was a special case: both an emergent branch of science beginning to separate itself from the more general “botany,” or the study of plants in general. It became a popular pastime for a burgeoning class of sea-side vacationers. In particular, its mixture of science and leisure provided an in-between space for women who were interested in science to participate in the scientific community without being perceived as flaunting strict Victorian gender roles.
In an article for Environment and History, librarian Stephen Hunt tracks down a number of nineteenth-century books by women on the art of gathering seaweed. Margaret Gatty, a popular author of Victorian children’s books, published British Sea-Weeds in 1863. Other algological works from the time include Isabella Gifford’s The Marine Botanist (1848), Anne Pratt’s Chapters on the Common Things of the Sea-Side (1850), and Louisa Lane Clarke’s The Common Seaweeds of the British Coast and Channel Islands (1865), and, of course, Elizabeth Allom’s The Sea-Weed Collector. The sheer number and volume of these works showcases the key position that women held in Victorian science in gathering, interpreting, and popularizing scientific data—in spite of the fact that the Royal Academy would not admit a woman as a fellow until 1945. At one and the same time, the rare books library can be a site for scientific research and a place to recover voices that the scientific community has historically ignored.
Allom’s work is set apart from that of her contemporaries, however, in that her book contains actual specimens of pressed and dried seaweed. Her book is therefore not simply a book about seaweed, but a book of seaweed—it is a curated collection in and of itself, filled with small specimens of aquatic life that have been gently pasted into place. The most immediately striking thing about it is how well the original specimens are preserved after nearly one hundred and eighty years. By preserving this book, the library also preserves the once-living specimens in its pages, becoming a site of both historical and environmental preservation.
Each page has a brief identification guide with a Latin name for the seaweed on the verso (commonly understood as the left-hand page of the book) and the seaweed itself pasted onto the recto (the right-hand page). While the specimens would have been more vibrant in color when first collected, the delicate fronds and ridges of each algae are still visible in striking detail. Allom writes, on the page dedicated to Fucus crispus (now commonly called “Irish Moss”): “A separate piece of paper should be placed between every expansion of the frond or it will be matted together in pressing.” Her careful attention to preservational detail suggests that her book served a didactic purpose, a kind of “show and tell” for the less experienced algologist, but it also shows how deep a passion she held for these mossy seashore denizens.
The work of Allom and her contemporaries played a significant role in opening up the broader field of marine ecology to deeper research. Algology textbooks from the time were generally written by men, but they relied heavily on the work done by women like Allom–sometimes crediting their contributions, sometimes not. The library therefore does not just preserve seaweed, as impressive as that fact is in itself, but it tells a story about how women made a lasting contribution to the field when other venues ignored or neglected their work. We would have no idea what a significant role women played in algology’s early days or how intricate the process of mounting algolical specimens was in the nineteenth century if we didn’t have seaweed in the library.
With thanks to the Lilly Library for allowing the reproduction of images from their collection.
Allom, Elizabeth. The seaweed collector: an introduction to the study of the marine algae, with directions from practical observations on the best method of collecting and drying the weed: illustrated with natural specimens from the shores of Margate and Ramsgate. Margate: T. H. Keble, 1841.
Allom, Elizabeth Anne. Sea-Side Pleasures, Or A Peep at Miss Eldon’s Happy Pupils, London: Aylott and Jones 1845. Available from the Biodiversity Heritage Library, https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/228080#page/7/mode/1up.
Hunt, Stephen E. “‘Free, Bold, Joyous’: The Love of Seaweed in Margaret Gatty and Other Mid-Victorian Writers.” Environment and History 11.1 (February 2005), 5-34. Find on Jstor: https://www.jstor.org/stable/20723514?seq=1.
Edited by Chloe Holden and Joe Vuletich