For decades, paleontologist Malcolm McKenna was a fixture at the American Museum of Natural History, where he served as the Frick Curator of Fossil Mammals. A giant in his field, Dr. McKenna, who passed away in 2008, penned hundreds of scientific papers and the book Classification of Mammals Above the Species Level, the standard for taxonomy of mammals both modern and extinct.
Image: Early editions of Charles Darwin’s work From McKenna’s collection. ©AMNH/D. Finnin
But while he made his name in the study of fossil mammals, McKenna was also famous for his belief that being an expert in just one area was not enough—and that well-rounded scientists should have broad interests and draw from a variety of fields.
“He always wanted paleontology students to have another set of toolkits,” says current Frick Curator of Fossil Mammals John Flynn, who was urged to pursue his interests in paleomagnetics and geologic dating methods while under McKenna’s tutelage in the Columbia University-AMNH Ph.D. program. “Malcolm was insistent that you couldn’t be just a paleontologist.”
Now Dr. McKenna’s wide-ranging library—which includes early editions of Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man, rare historical paleontological titles like Memoirs of Icthyosauri and Plesiosauri, and titles on topics as practical as plate tectonics and as speculative as extraterrestrial life—has returned to the Museum thanks to the generosity of the McKenna family and their vision for the future of the collection. It’s housed in a research annex of the Division of Paleontology, in its own room—The Malcolm C. McKenna Library Collection of the Osborn Library. The books and papers are arranged to reflect McKenna’s encyclopedic approach to science and occupy more than 600 linear feet of shelf space. That means, laid cover to cover, the collection would span the length of two football fields.
Image: The Malcolm C. McKenna Library Collection in its new home in the Museum’s Division of Paleontology. © AMNH/D. Finnin
“We’ve maintained the organization of the library as it originally was, in topic order and with a personal touch,” says Lindsay Jurgielewicz, a curatorial assistant who helped get the library settled in its new home.
Maintaining that order was particularly important to Dr. McKenna’s family, as well as to former students and colleagues like Dr. Flynn, who says that the collection will lead browsers to make unexpected connections and offer new generations of researchers and students insight into Dr. McKenna’s work.
“Malcolm’s books, maps, and papers are organized so that as you peruse them, you’re being exposed to a whole spectrum of different ideas,” says Flynn. “A student looking for a modern paper might come across some very interesting manuscript from the 18th century.”
That emphasis on a diversity of interests, recalls Flynn, was also reflected in McKenna’s teaching style. “He made you think about things by pulling information together yourself, not by having someone tell you,” says Flynn.
Image: Rare titles like Memoirs of Icthyosauri and Plesiosauri are included in McKenna’s collection.
The McKenna Library Collection also includes more lighthearted items, including a flipbook that depicts the history of continental drift, and a small section devoted to puzzles and brain-teasers.
“It’s interesting to get a look at his thought process, at what he thought was important and worth hanging on to,” says Shaun Mahmood, now a curatorial assistant in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, who helped unpack, organize, and shelve Dr. McKenna’s extensive collection last summer when he was an intern in the Division of Paleontology.
By giving McKenna’s collection a permanent home at the Museum, Flynn hopes these titles will help inform and motivate young researchers like Mahmood, as it had inspired him when he was a graduate student at the Museum.
“Malcolm’s encyclopedic library lay at the heart of his own work, but also stimulated legions of young scholars to think broadly and synthetically about paleontology and other sciences,” says Flynn. “Having it as a special collection in the Osborn Library will enable the Museum to provide that same inspiration to future generations of scientists.”