Rare books get needed attention

By Jon Hansen

Chris Cook and eight students from the Graduate School of Library are on a mission.

For more than 100 years the University has acquired one of the largest collections of rare books in the United States. And now, the University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library is trying to catalogue at least 70,000 items, which until now have been inaccessible to the outside world. These essentially hidden items represent nearly one quarter of the total collection in the Library.

But thanks to a $604,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon foundation, Cook and his team have begun the painstaking process of revealing these books to the world.

“We have so many books that the world doesn’t know about. Books that are hidden away from scholars,” said Valerie Hotchkiss, head of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library. “Now we want people from Italy, Finland and Peoria to find out what we have.”

The planned project, named “An Embarrassment of Riches,” aims to make every book in the collection accessible via the University’s online catalog.

According to Hotchkiss, the collection is one of the largest and most remarkable in the country. The collection includes the third-largest University collection of 15th century books, trailing only Harvard and Yale.

“These books are the rarest of the rare, printed in the first few decades after the invention of the Gutenberg printing press,” she said.

According to Hotchkiss, the Library also owns great collections of English literature, history and Italian works. The collection also includes a large portion of an original Gutenberg Bible.

In total, the books and manuscripts have a combined value of $750 million, and Hotchkiss said that may be a low estimate.

“This is the most valuable cultural collection in Illinois outside of Chicago,” she said. “You don’t get this everywhere.”

The project, which was proposed to the Mellon Foundation in December 2005 and approved in June, hopes to finish the job of earlier efforts.

Previously, the Mellon Foundation provided funding for cataloging discrete collections within the Library. That project, completed in 2004, resulted in online records for 28,418 books.

Cataloging the remaining 70,000 items will not be easy. And that is where Cook comes in.

Cook now finds himself as the project manager of the team that will carry out this cataloging.

“This is my first professional job cataloging books,” Cook said. “It helps to have a well organized plan, it makes it easier to manage.”

So how exactly does cataloging books work?

“I was hoping you weren’t going to ask that,” Cook joked. “What we are trying to do with the project is to record data that is unique to our items, helping to prevent theft and provide another aspect for researchers to investigate.”

According to the project proposal, accessibility and security are compromised severely in the current situation.

“The system is so fragmented and complex that only an on site researcher could possibly find them,” the proposal said. “The security of these significant materials will be enhanced when rare items are cataloged.”

According to Cook, books are brought from the storage facility into a room where a staff member will identify the work and edit the record in the online database. Information detailing the history of the book, known as a its provenance, is often as important as the text itself. “Sometimes we have the only copy of something that exists so we want to get all the details for our researchers,” Cook said.

The Library hopes to complete about 20,000-23,000 records a year, with each staff member expected to catalog or convert about 20-25 records a day. At this rate, the project should be completed in three years.

Cook said he is not nervous about the deadlines and expectations.

“Even if we fall a little short of our goal, it’s good to know that we are doing something to provide better access to people interested in rare books,” he said.

So how exactly did the Library get into this messy situation? According to Hotchkiss, the reason is simple.

“The University is unique in that it is a massive acquirer of books, and we’ve had great bookmen and bookwomen over the years who have had a collect, collect, collect attitude, without the staff to catalogue, catalogue, catalogue,” Hotchkiss said. “It is wonderful to acquire so many books, but you can’t go on like that forever.”

According to Hotchkiss, many of the books were never entered into a system where researchers away from campus could search for them.

“We want people to see that we have these books, that way someone who needs a particular work knows that we have it and we can help them from there,” Hotchkiss said.

The project is also part of a larger effort to get more students and researchers to use the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, according to Hotchkiss.

“We want more people to come in and see what we are doing,” she said. “Odds are that most won’t show an interest, but we may get one person really interested in rare books and become a great collector one day.”

All students of the University are eligible to look at the books and manuscripts. Other scholars, researchers, and people interested in the collection can call the Library for information on how to see the books.

“We are completely and utterly open to the public,” Hotchkiss said. “Two undergrads last week wanted to see the Gutenberg Bible, simply to see it. They had stars in their eyes as we brought the book out and showed them.”

Hotchkiss said the emphasis is on those interested in the collection.

“The most important book that we have,” is the one you are looking for,” she said.