Page-turner books aren’t typically as big as a table — but every time an LSU Hill Memorial Library employee turned a page of “Birds of America” on Audubon Day on Saturday, people gasped in awe.
Inside what librarians call the “elephant folios” — the four 39-inch-by-27-inch books that make up “Birds of America” — are intricate, life-size paintings by famed naturalist John James Audubon. The works are well known in Louisiana, where Audubon drew artistic inspiration in the 1820s.
The library hosts Audubon Day at least annually so people can see LSU’s copies of Audubon’s work up close, said Jessica Lacher-Feldman, head of LSU Libraries Special Collections.
Saturday’s visitors had to register in advance and viewed the books in one-hour shifts, with employees turning the delicate pages for them.
Many people feel a personal connection to Audubon’s birds, even when seeing them for the first time, Lacher-Feldman said.
“People in Louisiana know and love birds. … We’re on the migratory path; we see lots of birds,” she said. “There’s so many people that are really passionate about birds. But we also have many people who take great pride that Audubon did some of his work in Louisiana and has Louisiana ties.”
Audubon drew and painted birds he observed in nature — some that are now extinct but others that Louisianians still see every day in their backyards. He had engravings made in England to capture fine lines and details, and a team of artists added color later.
“They look so real,” said Michaela Todaro, an LSU communication studies student. “It sounds weird, but I want to pet it. It looks so soft.”
Pat Reilly recalled seeing the folios on display in the library as an LSU student in the 1970s. She’s been in love with them ever since, she said.
“It’s not just the birds,” Reilly said. “It’s also the printmaking and the book binding, and then a lot of things have bugs in them, plants in them. … You see plantation homes, cattle fields.”
LSU bought the four volumes with a $65,000 grant in 1964 and restored them in 2008. The books, which are approaching 200 years of age, are today the most valuable published material in LSU’s collection, Lacher-Feldman said. A similar “Birds of America” set sold in London in 2010 for nearly $12 million.
There are few copies in existence, let alone complete intact sets, Lacher-Feldman said.
“They were originally published by subscription,” she said. “People got five plates at a time and collected and bound them in their own style.”
Audubon, who was born in Haiti and came to Louisiana in 1821, painted a total of 457 bird species found across North America. It took him nearly three decades — from 1808 to 1837 — to complete “Birds of America.”
Audubon found many of his painting subjects in the woods near St. Francisville.
“It’s a beautiful history of this area,” said Earl Weidner, pointing out the plantation homes and people woven into some of the landscapes. Though a retired zoology professor, Weidner said that historical detail is what draws him to Audubon’s work.
Sholanda Metz brought her 6-year-old daughter, Caryn, to the exhibit. Caryn loves animals, Metz said, but she hoped Audubon’s unique portrayal of them would provide some teachable moments, too.
“At a young age, they tend to think the only birds that exist are the ones they see — sparrows, parakeets — and there’s four volumes of different types of species,” Metz said, pointing to the folios on display.
For Reilly, the “Birds of America” prints are “a national treasure,” and it’s important to have them on LSU’s campus — in Louisiana and near the places where Audubon spent time drawing his birds.
“This belongs to everybody,” she said. “It has a forever, forever, forever legacy.”