Libraries virtual exhibition highlights human impact on our planet

April 21, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — To coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day in April 1970, a new online exhibition, “Earth Archives: Stories of Human Impact,” explores the intersection of the environment, human activity, and the documentary record.

First conceived as a physical exhibition, "Earth Archives" has been reimagined and presented virtually by curators at Penn State University Libraries' Eberly Family Special Collections Library, viewable through Dec. 23, 2020.

The virtual exhibition invites the viewer to consider a range of environmental-related topics and will serve as a growing, centralized resource for the Libraries' rich trove of primary sources focused around key issues and themes: Climate Change and Weather Data, Energy and Extraction History, Environmental Disasters and Pollution, Arctic Exploration, Eco-Materiality and Future Speculations, Biodiversity, and Environmental Protection and Activism.

Pennsylvania has a long history of tension between the use of its natural resources, both above and below ground, to fuel growth and economic gain on the one hand, and the preservation of natural resources to support healthy and sustainable ecosystems and communities, on the other. In her influential work "Silent Spring" (1962) on the effects of pesticides on the environment and human health, Rachel Carson, a prominent Pennsylvanian, wrote, "Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species — man — acquired significant power to alter the nature of the world." The exhibition will tell the stories of both historical and contemporary books and documents — and their creators — to highlight specific instances of our "significant power" to alter the environment in both destructive and constructive ways, and the power of storytelling to communicate the urgency of the present moment.

Highlights of the exhibition include virtual representations of varied print, manuscript, and art works such as a first edition of "Silent Spring"; key early climate science findings from 19th-century scientists such as Eunice Newton Foote and John Tyndall; an album of seaweeds collected by women off the English coast around 1850; a manuscript diary illustrating glaciers encountered on the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899; documents and publications related to Donora, Pennsylvania, which became the site of one of the worst air pollution disasters in U.S. history; and the records of EcoAction, a student environmental activism group at Penn State, among others.

In conjunction with the online exhibition, Special Collections is working with filmmakers at the CommAgency, a Penn State student-run media production agency, to make a short film on the history of student environmental activism at Penn State. When the film is completed in May of 2020, it will be available to view on the site.

“Earth Archives: Stories of Human Impact" is curated by Ben Goldman, archivist for curatorial services and strategy and Clara Drummond, curator and exhibitions coordinator in Special Collections, and is open for viewing at The dates for the physical exhibition will be announced when we can once again gather on campus. For more information or for questions about this exhibition, please contact Ben Goldman at or Clara Drummond at

Last Updated May 04, 2020