Book of Kells

Special Collections Offers Timeworn Gems for Bibliophiles

Ann Kenne, head of Special Collections and Archives at the University of St. Thomas, runs her fingers across the cover of what is clearly a very old book.

“Feel the top of it. You can feel where the hairs were pulled out,” she said, referring to the old-world vellum book cover made of stretched, translucent calf-skin. The only decipherable word on the title page, at least for non-Latin speakers, is “Diana.” Kenne easily translates the publication year MDCLXVII: 1667.

To visit the Department of Special Collections at the University of St. Thomas is to travel back in time, long before our fixation on Kindles, texting and instant messaging. A rare book is more than just its content; its physical presence is a portal to the past, offering readers an opportunity to experience the culture and society of the time in which it was made.

Tucked away off a tunnel beneath O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library, St. Thomas’ rare book depository-portal, if you will, is more mole den than Flux Capacitor, but housed within the nondescript walls are treasures that date back centuries. The collections are stored in two sub-level rooms connected to a separate HVAC system from the rest of the university to keep the temperature at a constant 65 degrees Fahrenheit and a relative humidity of 35 to 40 percent year round.

Anyone who has the foresight to make an appointment – and a willingness to let Kenne personally relieve him/her of bag, purse and pen – may view the collection.

Below is a show-and-tell of a handful of notables from the 23,000-volume collection of artifacts owned by St. Thomas’ Special Collections.

Book of Kells reproduction

Though Kenne doesn’t keep a tally of the most popular piece in the collection, she guessed it’s the facsimile of the Book of Kells. Considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Irish and early Christian art, the book is an “illuminated,” or elaborately hand-painted, manuscript of the four Gospels of the New Testament. The original is on display in the Old Library at Trinity College in Dublin and attracts more than 500,000 visitors a year.

“Every time we have a St. Patrick’s Day open house or something like that we always get questions about pulling it out for people to see,” she said.

Despite being a reproduction, the book is a work of art in its own right. Each page was photographed, and other efforts were employed to reproduce the circa 800 A.D. book exactly. Wormholes were precisely cut into the pages. The miniscule cracks of paint, wayward scribbles and discolorations even were replicated. Ragged edges were crafted into the parchment-like paper to mimic the wear and age of the original, which was fashioned from traditional vellum (prepared lamb or calf skin), the most durable material at the time.

John O’Shaughnessy, grandson of Father I.A. O’Shaughnessy, donated the $15,000 tome to St. Thomas around 1990, the year Swiss publisher Faksimile-Verlag Luzern released the 1,480-copy limited edition of the book.

De Legibus (On the Law) by Marcus Tullius Cicero

A detail from De Legibus.The oldest book in the collection, De Legibus, or On the Law, by the great Roman thinker and politician most commonly known by his surname, Cicero, dates to 1496, a mere 50 or so years after the invention of the printing press. Kept in a vault because of its preciousness, this particular copy was rebound in the last 10 years.

If you judged the book by its flawless, hardback leather-bound cover, you'd think it was brand new. Its venerable place in time is revealed only when it is opened.

Kenne said St. Thomas used to have a book conservator on staff who would restore extremely distressed books, like De Legibus, in house, but those services are now hired out.

The pages are brighter than one would imagine for a book more than 500 years old. "Paper was very high quality and durable back then because they reused linen or cotton to make paper by churning the material in water until it was a spreadable mush. They were among the first to recycle, you could say," Kenne noted. The mush was then spread onto a screen to dry, which is evident in the faint lines that run down each page in tight columns.

"If you're lucky, in some of these old books ... made before the late 19th century when book-making became industrialized and they started using more wood pulp, you might find a design within the lines that shows who the papermaker was," Kenne said.

The book once was the property of Peter O'Connor, a prominent grocery store magnate who died in 1916. His daughters, Sisters Mary Agnes and Mary Fidelis O'Connor of the Visitation Convent of St. Paul, donated this and many of the books now in the Celtic Collection to St. Thomas in 1936. Nothing is known of De Legibus' previous owners, but judging from the copious, faded notes written in quill pen in the book's margins and blank pages, he (or she) was fluent in Latin.

Correspondence between Christopher Dawson and C.S. Lewis/T.S. Eliot

The letters written to Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) by literary giants T.S. Eliot and, separately, C.S. Lewis, capture the sentiment of an era before “snail” preceded “mail:”  Letter writing was a common practice – even craft – over which scribes lavished hours of personal time and care.

Letter from C.S. LewisDawson, an Englishman and a leading Roman Catholic historian and intellectual of the 20th century, was the chair of Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard Divinity School as well as a great influence of Eliot. Included in the collection are a number of original, typewritten and personally signed letters, written by Eliot, all on Faber and Faber Ltd. Publishers (London) stationary. The correspondence shows the budding friendship between the two men, as Eliot begins a note, dated Aug. 16, 1929, with "Dear Sir," then segues later that year to "My Dear Mr. Dawson," then "My dear Dawson" in 1937, then, in 1953, to, simply, "Dear Dawson."

Also among the Dawson collection is a handwritten letter, dated Sept. 27, 1942, by Clive Staples, aka C.S., Lewis, famed academic and author of The Chronicles of Narnia series and Mere Christianity, in thanks for sending a copy of his (Dawson’s) Giffords Lectures. In Lewis’ note – written in disjointed cursive but in enviably straight lines despite the unlined paper – Lewis apologizes first for “greedily reading it at lunch and splashing it with gravy,” then offers humble praise of Dawson's thoughts on natural theology: “It was exactly what I wanted, going, of course, far beyond my knowledge, but often linking up with what little I do know — always the most exciting kind of reading.”

A True Account of the Siege of London-Derry

Written by the Rev. George Walker, a celebrated Anglican priest from Ireland who fought for England, A True Account may no longer be widely known or coveted, but the 1689 publication nonetheless reveals a time long before reading was mostly done on screens and when book-making was an art form.

Like De Legibus, the paper, though heavier, is made of recycled cloth and, therefore, relatively bright, especially if it were to be held up to, say, a James Bond paperback circa 1953. The tattered, smudged edges make you wonder how many fingers have turned the pages in the more than 300 years since it was released.

The publication (rebound now as a book, it was originally published as a pamphlet) seemingly was commissioned "By the command of the Right Honourable the Earl of Shrewsbury, Principal Secretary of the State" on Sept. 13, 1689. Kenne said it was customary in that time for anyone wishing to write a book to seek the blessing, or permission, of a royal. Once granted, it would have been incumbent upon the would-be author to include a sycophantic introduction, praising the royal member's character and expressing the author's eternal gratitude and allegiance.

Saint John’s Bible

The Heritage Edition of the Saint John’s Bible, a rare though relatively new work, is possibly the most valuable piece in the university’s collections. Commissioned by the monks of Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota, the bible is a stunning, fine art reproduction  one of 299 copies that ever will be produced. The first was presented publicly to Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican in 2008. The original, which is partially on display at Saint John’s, is the world’s first handwritten all by Donald Jackson, official scribe of England’s Queen Elizabeth II hand-illuminated bible in more than 500 years.

Each book of the seven-volume, Italian-leather-bound bible weighs around 40 pounds and eclipses the size of many standard end tables. The Saint John’s Bible was presented to Father Dennis Dease as a gift to St. Thomas in 2009 and made possible by Robert Ulrich (on behalf of Target Corp.), a member of St. Thomas’ Board of Trustees.

Kenne’s wish list

On Kenne’s wish list to add to St. Thomas' Special Collections? A 1914 first-edition copy of James Joyce’s Dubliners, with the book jacket. Which makes sense, as the department’s largest collection is the 7,400-title, 9,600-volume Celtic Collection, of which approximately 85 percent focuses on Ireland.

“They don’t go up for auction often, and the last time one did (in 2012), it sold for around $150,000. I don’t think we’ll be getting a copy anytime soon,” she said.

No matter. Until that day, there are plenty more awe-inspiring, timeworn works in the university's possession to lure the bibliophile in all of us from our screens. (Perhaps, even, this screen.)