150 Notable Books: American Bird Songs (on vinyl, not paper!)

As part of CUP’s150th anniversary, current and former staff compiled a list of 150 of our most notable books. But one of the entries on this list is not a book at all—and is all the more significant for its differences. In 1942, Comstock Publishing began a partnership with the Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell to produce our first record album—American Bird Songs. This unusual publication is in fact a set of six 78-rpm records that marked innovations in both scholarly publishing and ornithological study.

This may not have been the first record album to be issued by a university press—I confess I have not researched the matter exhaustively—but it is highly unlikely that there were any earlier university press–issued wildlife recordings. The debut of this album was also the first step in creating a new imprint at the press: the Cornell Records Division. Over the next two decades, Cornell Records and the Lab of Ornithology produced twelve albums of recordings of songbirds from the United States, Mexico, and Africa; frogs and toads; and insects. American Bird Songs included familiar blue jays and mourning doves, water birds like loons and whistling swans, marsh birds like bitterns and Wilson’s snipe, and a wide variety of warblers. Thousands of copies of this album were purchased by amateur bird lovers and professional ornithologists alike—and for students at camps and schools.

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These recordings showcased the emerging field of wildlife recording, which was virtually invented at Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology. In the late 1920s, Professor Arthur Allen produced the first recordings of birds made in the wild in North America. He worked with Peter Paul Kellogg, a graduate student, to develop the technologies to produce better recordings, including Kellogg’s concept of the first portable (under twenty pounds!) tape recorder for fieldwork. Peter Keane, an undergraduate student, came up with the concept of using a parabolic dish to isolate the sound of a particular bird. Albert R. Brand, a former stockbroker who became an adult student at Cornell, funded much of the early recording work and produced the first album of bird songs.

The Lab of Ornithology’s sound recording collection now includes tens of thousands of wildlife sounds and the lab continues its technological innovations. Cornell University Press and Comstock Publishing are proud to have played an early role in sharing their work with the world.


About the author of this blog post: Karen Laun is the self-proclaimed press historian and an enthusiast of all things old and dusty. In her spare time, she is a Senior Production Editor and also works in the ultramodern world of e-books as Digital Publishing Editor.

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150 Notable Books: American Bird Songs (on vinyl, not paper!)

150 Notable Books: The First Books of Cornell University Press

Every press has to start somewhere and produce its very first book. Tracking this book down for Cornell University Press, however, is an impossible task. In late 1869, America’s first university press was mainly a printing house. We produced lecture notes for professors, university documents, and student newspapers on a large steam-driven Hoe printing press. Most of these items were short, ephemeral, and any records vanished long ago. We do not know the name of the first item to roll off the press.

The publication chosen to represent the first book by Cornell University Press, and to be the first entry on our list of 150 notable books, is the 1869-70 University Register. This annual publication contained much of the information you would find on a modern university website. It was a directory of staff and students, a listing of fields of study and graduation requirements, and a description of the university’s founding, mission, and many fine amenities.

CUP first

The director of the press, Willard Fiske, wrote a letter to President A. D. White in August 1869 about his work on the register. He described the contents, gave an estimate for completion of proof pages, and explained his plans for raising money to pay for the publication by including a page of advertising—just as most of the British university presses were doing. Despite all the trappings of modern technology that surround publishing today, these basic elements have remained the same: develop the best possible book, produce it on deadline, and figure out how to pay for it!

In contrast to the unknown first publication from CUP, Comstock Publishing was formed in 1892 for the specific purpose of publishing a particular book. As the twenty-fifth anniversary of the inauguration of the university approached, two professors, John Henry Comstock and Simon Henry Gage, felt this would be a good opportunity to honor their former professor and mentor, Burt Green Wilder. Wilder, a Harvard medical school graduate and former Civil War surgeon, had been a professor of neurology and vertebrate zoology at Cornell since its earliest days.

Comstock and Gage contacted several of Wilder’s former students and asked them to contribute to a Festschrift, a contributed volume of essays meant to honor a respected academic—and the first such book published in the United States. The result was the Wilder Quarter-Century Book, a book of nearly 500 pages, with many plates and engravings. Contributors, in addition to Comstock and Gage, included Anna Botsford Comstock (naturalist and first woman professor at Cornell), David Starr Jordan (first president of Stanford University), Leland Ossian Howard (USDA entomologist), Theobald Smith (pioneering bacteriologist), John Caspar Branner (geologist and discoverer of bauxite), and William Russell Dudley (head of the botany department at Stanford).

These two first publications bookend (if I may) the educational journey at Cornell. The first CUP book introduced prospective students to the university and its many opportunities. And the first Comstock book showcased the many achievements of former Cornell students, out in the world, discovering and disseminating knowledge.

page from Comstock first

Karen Laun is the self-proclaimed press historian and an enthusiast of all things old and dusty. In her spare time she is a Senior Production Editor and also works in the ultramodern world of e-books as Digital Publishing Editor.

150 Notable Books: The First Books of Cornell University Press

Your Job or Your Water: Watersheds amid the “Economy Vs. Environment” Conflict

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Lake Tear in the Clouds, Hudson River headwaters

The need for improved water resource protection is urgent, yet land-use activities increasingly imperil our water supplies. With that in mind, we’re excited to present the final installment of a three-part blog series, “Watershed Paths to Water Protection,” on citizen stewardship of water resources by Karen Schneller-McDonald, author of Connecting the Drops: A Citizens’ Guide to Protecting Water Resources.

We’ve all heard the message: Natural resource protection (including regulations) raises taxes, costs jobs, and discourages economic growth. Environmental degradation may be the price you have to pay to retain your job and standard of living.

In this series, we’ve had a look at watershed science, community partnerships, and watershed groups and their goals: clean drinking water, reduced flooding, healthy ecosystems. A major obstacle to achieving these goals, no matter where we live, is the “environment vs. economy” argument framed as a zero-sum choice. Continue reading “Your Job or Your Water: Watersheds amid the “Economy Vs. Environment” Conflict”

Your Job or Your Water: Watersheds amid the “Economy Vs. Environment” Conflict

College and Community: A Watershed Partnership

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Eel survey, mouth of the Saw Kill at the Hudson

The need for improved water resource protection is urgent, yet land-use activities increasingly imperil our water supplies. With that in mind, we’re excited to present the second installment of a three-part blog series, “Watershed Paths to Water Protection,” on citizen stewardship of water resources by Karen Schneller-McDonald, author of Connecting the Drops: A Citizens’ Guide to Protecting Water Resources.


Watersheds connect people in multiple communities through a shared interest in water. Water doesn’t respect municipal boundaries, so watershed protection encourages water users to form partnerships—not only among towns and villages, but also with colleges and universities. Even if you don’t live in a college town, chances are good that the watershed that supplies your drinking water includes a college or university campus. Continue reading “College and Community: A Watershed Partnership”

College and Community: A Watershed Partnership

Watershed and Community

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View of Hudson River from Cold Spring, New York © Angela Rutherford

The need for improved water resource protection is urgent, yet land-use activities increasingly imperil our water supplies. With that in mind, we’re excited to present a three-part blog series, “Watershed Paths to Water Protection,” on citizen stewardship of water resources by Karen Schneller-McDonald, author of Connecting the Drops: A Citizens’ Guide to Protecting Water Resources.


We’ve seen the headlines.

Officials Call for Drastic Action Amid ‘Water Quality Crisis’ in Newburgh

Hoosick Falls Water Contamination Crisis

Hopewell Families Win Battle for Money in Toxic Water Fight

And that’s just the beginning, as threats to water quality become reality, affecting life and health in an ever-growing list of communities.

How can we protect our water? To facilitate local discussion about water protection, the Hudson Valley Regional Council and the Saw Kill Watershed Community hosted a workshop on September 25 in Red Hook, a small Dutchess County town on the Hudson River. People filled the community meeting room, drawn by a shared concern: protecting their drinking water. Continue reading “Watershed and Community”

Watershed and Community