Zoos: A Historical Perspective
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Introduction by Alvin Hutchinson
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National Zoological Park Library
SIL Digital Library

Introduction by Alvin Hutchinson

A collection of pamphlets and guide books published by zoos over the past century has been collected by the National Zoological Park branch of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries. This online sample of these items, which includes maps, drawings and photographs of zoos from over 30 states and 40 countries is intended to highlight the value of this resource for both zoo and cultural historians. Few libraries or archives today contain materials showing the evolution of zoos in the modern era to the extent that this collection does.

It is clear from these illustrated works that zoological parks have served many different purposes throughout the years. In the past, zoos have doubled as recreation areas and amusement parks in addition to being a showplace for what many once viewed as "nature's oddballs." Animal rides, sporting events and even ballroom dancing were held on zoo grounds in an era when visiting a zoo often meant a day-long trip outside of the city limits.

This group of publications illustrates the variety of roles that zoos have played and the many facets of their operation and promotion. The guides to wildlife conservation parks and descriptions of early animal collecting expeditions by zoo curators give some insight to the roots of modern animal study. Some of the photographs of animal enclosures, restraint devices and mock theatrics, while unsettling to some, are an important part of the history of human-animal relations. The promotional nature of the items in this collection also demonstrates the history of graphic design, illustration and advertising used by public and private institutions throughout the years.

Many of the items in this collection were collected by former National Zoo directors and staff including Drs. William Mann and Theodore Reed. Others accumulated over the years as zoos routinely mailed their publications to and among one another. These materials were filed and maintained for many years by former National Zoological Park librarian, Kay Kenyon. Annual reports were retained for each year and as a result the collection grew enormously. A recent consolidation of the files resulted in the online exhibit presented here.

For more information on this historical collection, or to make an appointment to visit the NZP library, call (202) 673-4771 or e-mail hutchinsona@si.edu.

Additional Resources for "Zoos: a historical perspective"


Historical zoo images from the Library of Congress' American Memory web site.


Croke, Vickie.
The modern ark : the story of zoos : past, present, and future.
New York : Scribner, c1997.

New worlds, new animals : from menagerie to zoological park in the nineteenth century / / edited by R.J. Hoage and William A. Deiss ; with a foreword by Michael H. Robinson.
Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Zoo and aquarium history : ancient animal collections to zoological gardens / / edited by Vernon N. Kisling, Jr.
Boca Raton, Fla. : CRC Press, c2001.


Brambell,Michael. “The evolution of the modern zoo.”
International-Zoo-News 1993 October-November; 40(7): 27-34; No 248

de-Courcy,Catherine. “The origin and growth of zoos.”
Endangered-Species. 1999 Summer; 1(1): 16-19

Kisling,Vernon-N. “Colonial menageries and the exchange of exotic faunas.”
Archives-of-Natural-History. 1998 October; 25(3): 303-320

Polinger-Foster,Karen. “The earliest zoos and gardens”
Scientific-American. 1999 July; 281(1): 48-55

Reichenbach, Herman. “Lost menageries - Why and how zoos disappear.
International Zoo News 2002 April-May; 49(3): 151-63; No 316