Long-lost library book returns

Lost Library Book

Abby Graham

From left, Chuck Bronk, executive director of the Department of Biology in the School of Arts & Sciences, and Carton Rogers, vice provost and director of the Penn Libraries.

More than six decades after it was checked out, a rare treasure has been returned to its rightful home in Penn’s Van Pelt Library.

Chuck Bronk, executive director of the Department of Biology in the School of Arts & Sciences, has a clear memory of an encounter with a particular book during his graduate school days at Penn in the 1970s. During one of many “enlightening discussions” with Bronk’s dissertation advisor, Ralph Erickson, the biology professor pulled a thick volume off his shelf to share with Bronk.

“It was much more than a book,” recalls Bronk. “He introduced me to Hough’s ‘American Woods.’”

“American Woods,” a 13-volume set published in 1888, is a compilation of nearly all the different types of American trees that were known at the time. But rather than simply showing images of the leaves or bark as many field guides might, each book in this set includes actual slices of wood from the trees—roughly 1,000 slices in all, representing more than 300 species.

Lost and Found

Abby Graham

The long-lost Volume 1 of R.B. Hough’s “American Woods,” a 13-volume set published in 1888.

As Bronk examined the wood veneers of Volume 1, Erickson encouraged him to visit the Biology Library, then housed in Leidy Labs, to see the remainder of the set.

Fast-forward nearly 40 years. Erickson passed away in 2006 and the contents of his office were packed in boxes—labeled with his name misspelled—and wound up in storage in Leidy’s basement. In 2011, a flood inundated the storage space, soaking some of the boxes and prompting Bronk, in his new capacity in the department, to investigate what was inside.

“You can imagine my surprise when, in addition to two library books signed out April 19, 1974, I found Part 1 of ‘American Woods’ by R.B. Hough, seemingly last officially circulated in 1947,” Bronk says.

Grateful that the text had escaped damage from water and mice, Bronk returned the book to Penn’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library, where Vice Provost and Director of Libraries Carton Rogers gladly accepted the missing volume.

“It really is an amazing piece,” says Rogers. “I’m thrilled to have it returned.”

Originally published on December 6, 2012