Friends of the John Martin Rare Book Room
Friends of the John Martin Rare Book Room

New Acquisitions V

Damien Ihrig, MA, MLIS
Curator, John Martin Rare Book Room

Cropped reproduction of a black and white image by George Gillis Haanen showing Jan Bleuland sitting in a chair with a cabinet of skeletal specimens behind him.There are many aspects of my job that I find incredibly rewarding - I get to work with students of all ages (many of whom are using rare books for the first time), instructors from the University of Iowa and beyond who teach me something new with each class, researchers from all over the world who use books like ours for amazing projects, and of course, working with the books themselves.

This month's book blends all of the things that make working with our collection so rewarding: the paper, how it feels, the artistry, how it smells, the printing, construction, content, and evidence of the life it has lived. Simply known as the Medicinal plants scroll, it is an 8-meter scroll from Japan's Edo period (1603-1867) containing beautiful hand-painted illustrations.

Although 8-meters, it rolls up into a very compact package that will sit nicely on our shelves. It is not the size of the scroll that matters, however, it's how you use it. Japanese hand-scrolls, or emakimono, are not meant to be read or displayed completely unfurled. Rather, each panel should be read, one at a time, starting at the right and reading to the left. The right hand works in concert with the left to roll up the scroll at the same time as a new panel is exposed. This is considered especially important for narrative scrolls, such as the famous Tale of Genji.

Emakimono, distinguished from hanging vertical scrolls, or kakemono, are a form of communication almost as old as the Japanese written language. Starting with characters imported from China in the 5th century, the Japanese written language has evolved substantially since then. The use of Chinese characters, however, lasted for centuries. In fact, many of the Japanese books in the Rare Book Room collection use Chinese characters, including the Medicinal plants scroll.

Please read more about this beautiful scroll below.

This purchase was made possible by the generosity and foresight of Dr. John Martin to support the JMRBR with an acquisitions endowment.

Stay well, have a great Thanksgiving, and happy reading!


Fall & Spring Hours

The Room is available Monday-Thursday, 8:30-5:00 (U.S. Central) and Friday by appointment. FACE MASKS ARE STRONGLY ENCOURAGED. To guarantee the room is available, please contact me at



December 8 at 7pm (central) – Iowa Bibliophiles
Special Gallery Tour of the From Revolutionary Outcast to a Man of God: Dostoevsky at 200 exhibit
with curator Dr. Anna Barker


Book of the Month

Cover image from Manuel de Porras's Anatomia Galenico-moderna, 1716,

UNKNOWN. Medicinal plants scroll from Japan's mid-Edo period. Estimated date of creation is between 1727 and 1800. 29 x 800 cm.

The Medicinal plants scroll is, as its name suggests, a catalog of native Japanese plants, describing their habitats, flowers, fruits, and medicinal uses. Each brief description is accompanied by a handpainted illustration of the plant, usually in bloom. Thanks to the generosity and hard work of my colleague, Tsuyoshi Harada, our Japanese Studies Librarian, we have a detailed translation of the scroll.

Due to his efforts, we have identified each plant, including Cyrtosia septentrionalis in the image in the introduction, also called Yamashakujo or Tuchiakebi, and Panax japonicus, or Japanese Ginseng, seen here. Unlike traditional ginseng, this guide recommends avoiding the very bitter root of P. japonicus and instead using the root hairs.

The scroll also includes references to other medicinal plant resources available at the time. We are excited to see if we can locate any of these as well.

The scroll is in excellent condition. There is very minor staining here and there, but the original paper is otherwise spotless. It has been rebacked fairly recently with a modern paper containing gold flecks. Replacing the paper support on the back as the scroll ages is a customary practice. Emakimono are not made from a continuous roll of paper, but rather equally sized sheets that have been cleverly glued together, combining long fibers that extend out each side of the sheets. The layers of backing paper then add support and durability.

If you are interested in seeing this or other items mentioned in this or earlier newsletters, please contact Damien Ihrig at or 319-335-9154 to arrange a visit in person or over Zoom.

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