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Pages from the past

Rare set of books covered in vellum donated to Ellis
Friday, September 24, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:08 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

People know that MU’s Ellis Library has books. What they may not know is that it has books they might never see anywhere else.

Although he didn’t immediately realize it, Michael Holland, the library’s University Archivist and interim head of Special Collections, made a rare find in the summer of 2003 when the library received a set of old books. Bound in some sort of primitive leather, they came from a donor who now wishes to remain anonymous.

At first glance, Holland said he didn’t know what to make of the collection. It was only after some research that he discovered what can be called, without hyperbole, the stunning truth: The library had received a set of 16th century Lutheran theology books called “Loci Theologici,” a work by theologian Martin Chemnitz that deals with the concept of justification by faith. The set was printed in 1591 and is one of only five known copies in the world.

“I liked it because it was a surprise, but it took me a couple of days to figure out that the books were even rarer than I had initially thought,” Holland said.

In those few days, Holland learned that the books were bound in vellum, a now-rare type of leather made by stripping animal skins with chemicals. It was commonly used as writing material for manuscript books in the 14th and 15th centuries. In fact, Holland and a few MU students found that the covers of the books were taken from a handwritten 14th century version of “Lives of the Saints,” another theological work.

“It’s ironic that the vellum actually adds value to the books today,” Holland said. “The fact that they were bound in recycled leather would’ve originally made them a working man’s books.”

Jim Cogswell, director of MU Libraries, pointed out that the vellum may be at least as valuable, if not more so, than the books themselves.

Since discovering the true value of the collection, Holland and other library staff members have kept the books under tight security. Holland said they have been put into acid-free clamshell boxes and stored in Ellis’ Special Collections’ vault, for which only he has a key.

The vault also has several of its own precautions to preserve the books. Temperatures and relative humidity are closely monitored, and containers of silica dioxide, a drying agent, are put on shelves to keep moisture out.

The library requires that people using the books wear gloves and be supervised by staff and a security camera. So far, Holland knows of only two people who have asked to see the books. However, he said the library has plans to put them on display in its second-floor reading room.

The “Loci Theologici” has been translated from Latin into English and sold to the public. According to the WorldCat cataloging database, institutions besides MU that possess the original work include Harvard, Oxford, the Institut Protestant de Théologie in Paris and Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary in Mankato, Minn.

The library hopes to create digital images of the vellum covers for the Digital Scriptorium, a national database of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts — an idea that pleases Cogswell. “These books are still recorded knowledge, and they tell us something about a culture that existed hundreds of years ago,” he said. “This is a great example of how the marriage of old and new technologies can show people things that have been hidden for centuries.”


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