‘Into the Vault’ video series highlights treasures from University Libraries Special Collections

The “Into the Vault” series highlights unique items in the Washington University Libraries Special Collections. In this video, Tili Boon Cuillé, PhD, associate professor of French in Arts & Sciences, discusses Diderot’s “Encyclopédie.”

You can buy the paperback edition of Galileo’s “Dialogue” online for $13. But you can see — and touch — the real thing in Olin Library at Washington University in St. Louis.

The Washington University Libraries owns a first edition copy of Galileo’s 1632 book in which the astronomer uses comedy and clever banter to argue that Copernicus got it right — the sun is the center of the universe. The book was a huge hit with readers, but landed him in hot water with the Catholic church, which kept Galileo under house arrest until his death.

“This is a book that really represents a watershed in terms of the opposition of scientific authority to church authority,” said Rebecca Messbarger, PhD, professor of Italian, of history and of women, gender and sexuality studies, all in Arts & Sciences. “So even though the scientist lost, science wins.”

Galileo’s “Dialogue” is among the rare objects from the University Libraries Department of Special Collections spotlighted in “Into the Vault,” a new video series produced by Arts & Sciences in collaboration with University Libraries and hosted by Seth Graebner, PhD, associate professor of French and in International and Area Studies, both in Arts & Sciences.

Other videos showcase Denis Diderot’s “Encyclopédie,” Charles Darwin’s “The Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids Are Fertilised by Insects” and a 1678 letter from Isaac Newton to natural philosopher Robert Hooke. All of the videos are available on the Arts & Sciences YouTube channel.

Graebner conceived of the series after he agreed to serve as interim faculty adviser to the library’s Department of Special Collections. He was wowed by the library’s vast catalog of rare books, manuscripts, film and videos, artifacts and art, and wanted to share them with the broader public.

“I knew I was onto something when I would tell colleagues about what I had found and they would say, ‘We have one of those? No way,’” Graebner said. “This collection is far richer than I think most of us imagine. And it’s all available to any responsible, clean-handed person.”

Inspired by the prolific filmmaker Brady Haran, who has produced hundreds of “unabashedly nerdy” science videos for YouTube, Graebner invited faculty experts to dive deep into each object’s significance.

Viewers learn from Garland Allen, PhD, professor of biology in Arts & Sciences, that Darwin’s orchid research ran counter to the prevailing theory of natural theology — that a flower’s beauty was a gift from God. Darwin, Allen said, was an acute observer, “who could get right down into the nitty gritty, the weediness of the field and also think in rather global, cosmic terms about large scale processes.”

And from Tili Boon Cuillé, PhD, associate professor of French in Arts & Sciences, viewers discover Diderot’s “Encyclopédie” was nothing like today’s Wikipedia. “Here, there is no pretense to either objectivity or anonymity. It is the embodiment of an enormous social debate,” Cuillé said.

And Michael Friedlander, PhD, professor emeritus of physics in Arts & Sciences, analyzes what could be a long-lost letter from Newton to Hooke. Old documents, he said, have new stories to tell.

“Scholars can go back and ask, ‘Is this a good translation? Is there more here?’” Friedlander said. “Different scholars with different backgrounds may see different things. There are always different avenues to explore.”

Graebner agrees. Books, after all, are more than words.

“Most of the time, your Penguin Classics edition is just going to be the words and only one version of them,” Graebner said. “It’s not going to be the original pagination and the typeface as readers would have seen it, and it won’t have the marginalia that accumulates over a few centuries of users. You rediscover that paratext when you open an original physical object.”

Plus, Graebner said, old stuff is cool. He hopes to create videos highlighting the original drawings of the Eads Bridge and the library’s two copies of “The Nuremberg Chronicle,” a richly illustrated history of the world.

“There is the aesthetic pleasure and sense of wonder and strangeness of the object itself,” Graebner said. “There is a thrill that comes with handling an object that has been around for so long and that so many other people have handled looking for information or inspiration.

“The objects do have a kind of aura you don’t get out of facsimiles.”