Revolution-ary work in DPL's Rare Book Room


The Great Library of Alexandria was a beacon of inspiration for the elite scholars of the time. Though the library was burned partially in 391 - and most completely in 642 - libraries have become repositories of culture around the world, cataloging the whole of human experience.

With everything from a one of a kind, never published manuscript by Mark Twain to Shakespeare folios, a diary kept by George Washington and a leaf from a Gutenberg King James Bible, the Burton Historical Collections and Rare Book Room, located in the Main Branch of the Detroit Public Library, is just such a treasury.

Amidst the collections holdings is a rare edition of one of history's most influential scientific texts: Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus's De revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres) which is kept securely in the library's vault.

The work was first published in 1543 - the year of Copernicus's death. The DPL copy is from the second printing in 1566. According to Harvard astronomer and Copernicus scholar Owen Gingerich, the DPL acquired its copy in 1963 from the private collection of the Duke of Lerma in Spain.

In De revolutionibus, Copernicus proposed that the sun, not the earth, was at the center of the universe. He was not the first scientist to suggest this. The Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos (no relation to one-time Alexandrian librarian, Aristarchus of Samothrace) had proposed a heliocentric model in the 3rd century B.C. - but astronomers of Copernicus's day still believed that everything revolved around them.

By removing the earth from its special place in the universe, Copernicus's theory eroded the ancient distinction between "the heavens" and "the earth" and touched off a series of major scientific and cultural revolutions that led to a better understanding of humanity's place in the universe. - Scott Ligon and Nick Sousanis, with contributions from Lauren Fox.

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The Burton Historical Collection/Rare Books Room hosts special presentations and events, and welcomes school groups and private individuals to view pieces from the collection, including Copernicus's masterwork.

The Detroit Public Library
Burton Historical Collection
5201 Woodward Avenue
Detroit, Michigan 48202
(313) 833-1480

Hours: Tuesday, Wednesday: Noon - 8:00 pm
Thursday, Friday, Saturday: 10:00 am - 6:00 pm