January 29, 2018 | Hannah Ebeling

There are only 120 complete sets of John James Audubon's Birds of America prints. Thanks to a generous donation, Calvin College now owns one of them.

“The science that we have today is shaped so much by a desire to know the God that created it,” said David Malone, dean of college and seminary library. John James Audubon reflects this desire to understand creation in his passionate and detailed study of North American birds.

Rare Audubon prints gifted to Calvin 

Calvin College was recently gifted, by Udean Burke, Birds of America, a collection of prints by naturalist and painter John James Audubon. The collection was produced in 1966 by American Heritage Publishing and has an estimated value in the tens of thousands. The set contains 431 colored illustrations of a wide variety of birds of the United States, and is one of only 120 complete sets known to exist. Audubon’s Birds of America was originally produced between 1827 and 1838, consisting of hand-colored prints made by engraved plates.  

The donor, owner of Nancy and Udean Christian Tours, emphasized the importance of gifting this set to a Christian institution. “The donor was looking for a Christian school that would put them to use,” said Malone. The prints were given to be used at the discretion of the college, without restrictions, for the needs of the school, he said.

“I think it reflects well on Calvin that someone really not that familiar with Calvin, except by reputation, would select us for this gift,” said Randy Vogelzang, director of gift planning and major gifts. “It was an unexpected blessing and quite an honor and a privilege that they would have the confidence in supporting us and Calvin’s mission.”

Collection to be available to all

“Generally, when we have something like this, it’s my desire that we not hide it somewhere just in storage, and that the materials get engaged,” said Malone. “That’s really at the core of what a library does.” They are valuable and need to be well cared for, but that does not necessarily mean they need to be sequestered and unavailable, explained Malone.

The library’s goal would be that these prints are engaged and made available for natural science and history courses to understand the role of documentation in the history of science. “The collection is very attractive, and I can imagine that it could be framed and hung around the campus,” he said.

Complete set in perfect condition

The prints are in near perfect condition and while individual prints of Audubon’s Birds of North America are available, it is much rarer to come across a complete set of all 431 prints, much less in perfect condition, explained Vogelzang. “There are very few private colleges that have sets like this,” he said. “It is pretty remarkable for a smaller college to have something like this in their collection.”

“It was attractive to obtain them simply because of what they were, but it’s also desirable to find new ways of connecting curriculum with resources, and these kinds of visual materials are very different in that way,” said Malone.

What separates Audubon’s work is the detail and the intricacy that he was able to create in his documentation, explained Malone. The prints show the change in how the natural world was being documented and viewed at the time. “These fit well within a reformed perspective, said Malone. “This is God’s creation, let us fully understand the depth of it and try and understand as much as we can.”

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