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A Flight Through the Centuries: A (Brief) Survey of the College’s Rare Books and Manuscripts

By Renee Chang

Located on the lower level of Davis Family Library, the relatively inconspicuous entrance of Special Collections gives little indication that it is, in fact, home to folios that have existed for upwards of four centuries and first edition copies of classics such as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. From being one of the only sites in North America to house all 35 volumes of Diderot’s Encyclopédie to being the sole owner of Henry David Thoreau’s personal copy of Walden, there is simply no lack of wonder behind the doors of Special Collections. This week we journey through the archives — and centuries — to look at some of their most interesting items.

Nuremberg Chronicles (c. 1492)

First written in Latin by Hartmann Schedel, the Nuremberg Chronicles were translated into German by Georg Alt in 1492. Special Collections and Archives Preservation Manager Joseph Watson said the printed font is called ‘blackletter’ and imitated handwriting when printed books were still a new technology. “It’s like the Kindle — it’s set up kind of like a book,” Watson said. “Even though it’s a screen, it’s got the feel of turning pages. They were doing the same thing when they first started printing. They wanted it to look like manuscript. They were doing that purposefully to make people comfortable with the idea of printed matter.” And since color printing technology did not exist at the time, an artist went back and used watercolor to each woodcut illustration, making each copy of the book uniquely its own being.

Book of Hours (c. 1507)

At over five hundred years old, the Book of Hours is a recent acquisition for the College’s Special Collections. “They were used in private, so it would have been owned by a fairly wealthy person in the Medieval and Renaissance eras. They have different passages from the Bible that would be used for private prayer and study,” said Mikaela Taylor ’15, Postgraduate Fellow at Special Collections and Archives.

Diderot’s Encyclopédie (c. 1750)

Printed with lithograph engravings rich in detail, Diderot’s Encyclopédie was “basically an attempt to catalog everything in the physical world,” Taylor said. “There are 35 volumes, and what’s rare about this is that we have all the volumes and very few places outside of Europe have a full set of the encyclopedia.” These coveted encyclopedias were difficult to come by and most likely found homes for themselves in the personal libraries of the French aristocracy.

George Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio (c. 1872)

George Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio was first saw the light in 1872. Catlin’s portfolio depicts what explorers saw when they made trips to the American West. Since daguerreotype photography was extremely limited (and not to mention expensive) in the mid-1800s, Watson said that for many Americans, Catlin’s paintings became their first visual point of contact with the Western landscape. “When Eastern white people were looking to the American West and exploring it and documenting it, people at home in big cities like Philadelphia and Boston became interested. And so when they had a big expedition like this an artist went along to sketch and made images that would be sold. [Catlin’s portfolio] is particularly beautiful because it’s so large and so incredibly well done.”

Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (c. 1854)

According to Taylor, the College’s edition of American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau’s personal copy of Walden is rumored to be the second most highly insured item on campus. Replete with annotations and marginalia that allude to changes he wanted to see in future publications of the text, Thoreau’s copy of Walden was purchased back in 1940 by Viola White, a librarian at the College and Abernethy curator. On page 238, for example, Thoreau makes a light pencil marking — which is almost indistinguishable — to indicate that he was not happy with the placement of the hyphen in “rec-reate” and wished for it be “re-create” instead.

James Joyce’s Ulysses (c. 1920)

Special Collections is also home to a first edition copy of modernist James Joyce’s Ulysses. Bound in a cerulean blue cover, the edition dates back to the early 1920s. Although Taylor points out that the College’s copy of Joyce’s magnum opus might not be in the best condition — some pages of the book are still uncut — there is simply no denying its intellectual value. “It was the custom to buy the book like this and then have it bound in a leather cover and then as you were reading use a letter opener to cut the pages.”

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