The Smithsonian Institution is gearing up to celebrate its 167th birthday, a truly momentous occasion that marks almost two centuries of protecting and promoting important human accomplishments. Founded August 10th, 1846 on a mandate of “[s]haping the future by preserving our heritage, discovering new knowledge, and sharing our resources with the world,” the Smithsonian Institution is now home to an unparalleled collection of priceless artifacts and cultural milestones. Though the physical epicenter for the Institution is Washington, DC, its scope is worldwide and, thanks to the internet, people from all parts of the globe can now access its vast resources.
While you could spend days lost in the bowels of the Smithsonian Library, one of our favourite sections to explore is the rare book collection. For this very special edition of Famous Diaries, we’ve chosen what we think are three important examples of how the Smithsonian has managed to preserve our cultural heritage by taking us into the minds of some of the greatest thinkers in human history.
The 1920 Macmillan edition of Kipling’s Letters of Travel spans the two decades after his marriage to Carrie Balestier, a period that saw the young couple separated as Kipling carved out a place for himself in literary history. Kipling travelled across the world, gaining one-of-a-kind life experiences that would inform much of his writing, including his most famous work, The Jungle Book. His Letters of Travel take on a more personal nature than his familiar writings, and the middle section, “Letters to the Family,” offers an intimate look at the nomadic lifestyle of the young father in the peak of his prolificacy. In fact, here at Paperblanks® we find Rudyard Kipling to be such an important figure in literary history that we’ve featured his handwritten version of “Song of Songs” as part of our Embellished Manuscripts Collection.
The publication date alone is enough to qualify this work as vintage literature, but the fact that its author died in 180 AD elevates it to true antique status. Marcus Aurelius is a particularly interesting Roman Emperor to study, as he was known to be a philosopher king and was one of the last of the Five Good Emperors of the Roman era. As one of the fathers of Stoicism, Marcus Aurelius published many writings during his lifetime. His most famous tome, Meditations, was written toward the end of his life as a source for self-improvement during a particularly difficult campaign against Germanic tribes. The opportunity to peer into the mind and soul of one of history’s most fascinating figures is rare and is justification for all the hard work that has gone into sustaining the Smithsonian for the past 167 years.
Available in their entirety on the Smithsonian Open Library, the works of Geoffrey Chaucer are paramount in establishing the vernacular Middle English as a legitimate language. Known as the Father of English Literature, Chaucer continues to inspire modern authors (including Rudyard Kipling!) through his classic works like The Canterbury Tales, while also lending his name to a popular typeface and befriending Heath Ledger in A Knight’s Tale. While not a private diary per se, The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer are extremely personal in nature as he explores faith, philosophy and the human condition through poetry.
What are your favourite exhibits the Smithsonian Institution has to offer?