Knowledgeable Object Symposium

Last week, Chau Chak Wing Museum and the University of Sydney Library hosted The Knowledgeable Object symposium in partnership with AMaGA NSW. Aimed at connecting object-based learning professionals, attendees were mainly educators working across primary, secondary, or tertiary sectors. Topics focused on teaching and learning with objects in classrooms, museums, and libraries.

Presentations focused on learning objects specific to their collections. These included teaching about place at the Museum of Sydney through sharing traditional Dharawal techniques and materials for making tools, engaging with experiences of war by exploring the personal effects of a WWI veteran at the State Library of NSW, using visual art to teach approaches to communication and empathy to nursing students, and engaging children in hospital with nature using live animals with Georges River Environmental Education Centre.

Leen Rieth, Object Based Learning Coordinator in our Library, discussed how object-based learning can be an opportunity for students to interrogate the values and histories of collections. Object-based learning in the Library has increased undergraduate and community engagement with Rare Books and Special Collections. Keep an eye out for classes open to staff and the general public in 2024.

Announcement: Library Acquires First Edition of Vesalius’ 16th Century Anatomical Masterpiece

This book has been digitised and is now available to view on the Library’s Digital Collections.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of our much loved Fisher Library. Since opening its doors in 1963, Fisher has been at the heart of the University of Sydney community and has had a profound impact on education, research, and the pursuit of knowledge.

To celebrate this milestone occasion, the Library has acquired a first edition copy of a rare book that is considered by scholars to be one of the most influential works in the history of western medicine, De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (On the Fabric of the Human Body in seven books) by Andreas Vesalius.

Andreas Vesalius, Professor of Anatomy at the University of Padua, was only 29 years old when he published this monumental work in 1543. At this time, the ancient texts of Aristotle and Galen were still standards in the medical schools of Europe, with physicians reading the texts aloud as barber-surgeons performed the dissections on animals.

By taking the revolutionary steps of performing his own dissections – and on the human body – Vesalius discovered errors in the ancient authors’ teachings. The Metropolitan Museum, New York, notes that the Fabrica, “which drew attention to these flaws, initially threatened the academic medical establishment but ultimately won Vesalius admiration and a post as court physician to Charles V, to whom he dedicated the volume.” It is impossible to overestimate the place this book has in medical history as part of the discarding of dogmas and the establishment of scientific observation and thinking.

Select pages from De humani corporis fabrica libri septem

For these reasons, Vesalius is often referred to as the founder of modern human anatomy, but what is it that makes this book so enduring and important? Associate Professor Catherine Storey explains:

“This was a revolutionary masterpiece of anatomical art and science, which epitomised the spirit of the Renaissance. Vesalius turned the practice of anatomy from a simple repetition of facts, laid down by Galen in antiquity and unchanged for centuries, to an enquiring science. He recognised the power of illustration and used art to best advantage to ensure the reader engaged with the text.”

He employed an exceptional artist, Jan Stefan van Kalkar from the school of Titian, to bring Vesalius’ own anatomical dissections ‘to life’.  These prints were meticulously engraved on woodblocks and expertly printed by Oporinus in Basel. The Metropolitan Museum observes that, “no text on anatomy before the Fabrica had ever been illustrated so completely or so well, and although the plates are didactic in intent, they are also rich in aesthetic merit.” 

Select pages from De humani corporis fabrica libri septem

The iconic series of fourteen ‘muscle men’ in the Fabrica shows the human body in various states of dissection, often depicted in allegorical poses. In many instances, layers of tissue artfully fall away to reveal the muscles and ligaments which lie beneath. The figures pose in front of landscape backgrounds that have been identified as joining up to depict a panorama in the Euganean hills near Venice and Padua, Italy. Storey states:

“The final product became the benchmark for all future anatomical illustration, that few anatomists have challenged. The illustrations are still recognised today for their extraordinary beauty.  This work of genius is a true milestone of medical history.’’

In its original 16th century binding, our copy features extensive annotations throughout from the first owner, German physician Caspar Neefe. Neefe, who later served as personal physician to Duke Albert I of Saxony, acquired the precious volume only a year after its publication and obviously consulted it extensively throughout his career as a medical practitioner, and all woodcut illustrations and decorated initials up to page 165 are in full contemporary hand colour.

Line engraving of Caspar Neefe, the first owner of this edition of De humani corporis fabrica libri septem. Wikimedia Commons

Julie Sommerfeldt, Manager of Rare Books and Special Collections (RBSC) at the Library summarises:

“This is a unique opportunity to obtain a fine first edition of this seminal work. Vesalius’ magnificent illustrations of the human body have influenced medical and surgical teaching and practice for hundreds of years. This book takes its place as a pivotal item in Rare Books and Special Collections, alongside our annotated first edition copy of Isaac Newton’s Principia, as seminal works in the fields of Medicine and Science.The copy-specific features of this book plus the extensive hand annotations by the physician who first owned it bring enormous potential for original research, and opportunities for using this book in educational and outreach activities are enduring. It is an extraordinary and noteworthy asset to the University’s cultural heritage collections.”

Like many other significant items in our collection, this acquisition was enabled by the generosity of our benefactors. We would like to acknowledge the Margaret Lundie Fund, and the B & A Osborn Book Fund, for making this purchase possible. 

The book has been digitised and will be available to view through the Library’s Digital Collections from Monday 6 November 2023, the Library’s day of festivities celebrating Fisher Library’s anniversary. You can also book a Virtual Reading Room (VRR) session with a Librarian to browse the item in real time over Zoom. Details on how to view the physical item in the RBSC Reading Room are on our website.

Select pages from De humani corporis fabrica libri septem

Sydney Rare Book Week 2023

Join us at the Library to celebrate Sydney Rare Book Week from 23 – 28 October

Sydney Rare Book Week celebrates the importance of special collections, publishing, book production and collecting. This year, the program consists of free talks, workshops and tours run by a range of organisations. Join us at the University of Sydney for:

Object Based Learning with Rare Books

Guided by Leen Rieth, Object Based Learning Coordinator, this workshop will involve a small selection of items from the Rare Books and Special Collections, and will focus on visual literacy and collaboration. 

Book online here

Introduction to Letterpress Printing workshop

Join artist and printer, Brigitta Summers, to work with the Library’s early 19th century Albion printing press, fondly known as the Piscator Press. You will learn about the history of letterpress printing as well as have the opportunity to set some type and print your very own memento to take home. 

Morning session Afternoon session

You can view the full program online, including events by the State Library of NSW, Sydney Mechanics School of Arts, City of Sydney, NSW Guild of Craft Bookbinders, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Moore Theological College, Museums of History NSW, Penrith Museum of Printing.

Sydney Rare Book Fair

Sydney Rare Book Fair will be back at the University of Sydney from 26–28 October 2023. 

Held in our historic MacLaurin Hall, this event brings together Rare Books sellers from across the country. This event is free and open to everyone; come along to view interesting books, prints and ephemera. 

Thursday 26 October: 6-9pm 

Friday 27 October: 10am-5pm 

Saturday 28 October: 10am-4pm 

More info

At The Vanishing Point: the Souvenirs, Merchandise and Memorabilia of International Law

Currently on display in Rare Books and Specials Collections (level 1, Fisher Library) is a fascinating exhibition that focuses on the material objects of international law institutions like the United Nations and The Hague. 

The exhibition, At the Vanishing Point: the Souvenirs and merchandise of International Law is curated by Dr Emily Crawford and Associate Professor Jacqueline Mowbray from the University of Sydney, Associate Professor Daniel Joyce from the UNSW and Associate Professor Jessie Hohmann from UTS, in collaboration with Emily Kang (Rare Books & Special Collections Liaison Librarian, East Asian Collection).

The exhibition interrogates international law and international institutions through the lens of merchandise, memorabilia, and souvenirs. It showcases numerous vintage and contemporary souvenirs to prompt conversation and reflection about what such objects and imagery say about the role of international law in the social and cultural zeitgeist. 

In this exhibition, we reflect on the material objects of international law institutions like the United Nations and its agencies and interrogate international law and international institutions through the lens of merchandise, memorabilia, and souvenirs. How do international organisations present themselves to the world (by way of their gift shops or commercial collaborations) and how does society at large perceive of international law and international institutions (through invocation of international law in commercial imagery and objects)?

Dr Emily Crawford

At the Vanishing Point is on display now until 2024 in Rare Books and Special Collections on level 1 of Fisher Library. 

Shakespeare Beyond All Limits now on display in Fisher Library

400 years ago, in 1623, the first collected works of Shakespeare were published under the title Mr William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories & Tragedies. This impressive book – prepared after Shakespeare’s death in 1616 by his former acting colleagues John Heminge and Henry Condell – ran to over 900 pages and contained 36 plays by Shakespeare, 18 of which had not been printed before.

Among the latter were such influential works as Macbeth, The Tempest, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and As You Like It. Without the publication of the First Folio these extraordinary plays and more may have never appeared in print and achieved their powerful global impact.

In celebration of the 400th anniversary, this new exhibition – Shakespeare Beyond All Limits – displays books from Rare Books & Special Collections associated with Shakespeare’s First Folio and 3D-printed sculptures of Shakespeare and his characters by artist Simon Fieldhouse. The exhibition illustrates the historical origins of the Folio text and gives examples of how the plays have been interpreted over time through to the present.

During the COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020, staff at the Fisher library made a remarkable discovery. References were found in an old catalogue entry to some loose leaves from a First Folio.

Huw Griffiths

These Shakespeare sculptures are 3D resin prints. Each sculpture is created on a computer after the preliminary pencil drawings and ideas have been formulated. The programmes primarily used to create the sculptures are Blender and Z-Brush and then post processed and printed with Chitubox and an Anycubic Mono Photon X 3D printer. The prints are produced in a monotone grey resin colour and then hand painted with acrylic paint and finished with airbrushing.

It took nearly 18 months to learn to use the necessary computer programming and there was much trial and error.

Simon Fieldhouse

The exhibition was curated by Liam Semler (Professor of Early Modern Literature) and Huw Griffiths (Associate Professor of English Literature), in collaboration with Emily Kang (Rare Books & Special Collections Liaison Librarian, East Asian Collection).

The exhibition covers nine topics including folios, quatros and loose leaves; a closer look at The Life and Death of Julius Caesar and Hamlet, the trope of the tortured tyrant; and Shakespeare and popular culture.

The exhibition will also complement the Australian and New Zealand Shakespeare Association conference that will be held at the University of Sydney from 7-9 December 2023 and is also titled Shakespeare beyond all limits.

… Shakespeare was a man of his time and his unconscious values and cultural biases, which are reflected in his works, complicate and problematise his global reception nowadays.

Liam Semler

Enabling discovery: cataloguing the Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections

Sydney Digital Collections Usyd Library

In a time where Library space is at a premium and print collections are increasingly making way for digital, Rare Books and Special Collections stand out as unique points of difference within university libraries and offer a multitude of opportunities for creative and innovative educational experiences and original research.

The University of Sydney Library’s Rare and Special collections comprise manuscripts and books spanning millennia, from over 2000 B.C. to the current day, and encompassing literary, cultural, scientific, and religious thought across the globe.

Ethel M Richmond bequest

Ethel M Richmond’s generous bequest to the University Library has enabled a large-scale project to catalogue these collections, making them searchable and discoverable to researchers worldwide.


In 2017, a sketch of the Virgin and Child, since attributed to the Italian Renaissance artist Giorgione, was found in the back of a 15th Century edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy along with a contemporary inscription giving Giorgione’s age and the exact date of his death.

This previously unknown information allows Giorgione’s career timeline to be rewritten, and the addition of a new drawing to the small oeuvre of this enigmatic artist is of significance to art historians worldwide.

Who knows what other tantalising revelations are waiting to be revealed through this cataloguing project?

Sydney Digital Collections

In addition to cataloguing, the Library has a concurrent digitisation program that provides open access to high quality digital versions of significant historical and cultural treasures, via Sydney Digital Collections.

Lockdown Discoveries Series

Lockdown Discoveries is a series of blog posts and an exhibition created and curated by the Rare Books & Special Collections Cataloguing Project Team to highlight some of the weird and wonderful items they discovered whilst working from home during the 2020 Covid-19 Lockdown.

The exhibition showcases highlights from the Graham Science Fiction collection, handpicked and curated by the RBSC Cataloguing Project Team. The exhibition has been temporarily paused for the 2021 stay at home orders and will reopen when it is safe to open the Rare Book reading rooms once more.

Explore the links below to learn more about the cataloguing project, the discoveries and resulting exhibition.

Lockdown Discoveries: Part 1

Lockdown Discoveries: Part 2

Lockdown Discoveries: Part 3

Cataloguing the Graham Science Fiction Collection

Lockdown Discoveries Exhibition

Palm Leaf Manuscript