Ask A Librarian

Wise Library Holds Historic Rare Books

Posted by btoren@wvu-ad.wvu.edu.
November 28th, 2005

By Aaron Rote
Daily Athenaeum Staff Writer

Although most students rarely venture away from the first floor computer terminals in the Downtown Library Complex, Wise Library, the university’s original library before adding on, is actually home to a rather impressive selection of books. In addition to the characteristic selection of literature and scholastic texts, the collection is also attractive for those interested in old and rare books from all over the world.

Located on the sixth floor, the Rare Books Room contains a plethora of valuable texts that have either been donated to the library from outside sources or relocated from the main collection.

Harold Forbes, the collection’s curator, said the conservation of rare texts serves a dual purpose. “Our responsibilities are to maintain conditions for ideal preservation while allowing researchers to have access to the material,” Forbes said.

A majority of the books were donated in 1950 by Arthur S. Dayton, whose contribution includes most predominantly Shakespeare’s “Four Folios” and the works of several important 19th and 20th century American authors.

However, within the past few years, new collections have worked to showcase the room’s literary diversity. “We’ve got some really nice collections, including nearly 650 volumes of Isaac Asimov’s work,” Forbes said. “It’s about as complete a collection as you can find.”

The Rare Books Room most recently added two leather-bound hymnals that date back to the early 1400s. Although they have yet to be appraised, Forbes estimates their value at well over $10,000. “It was donated by William Bacon from St. Albans, W.Va., who was a lifelong book collector.

Although the room covers a broad assortment of subject matter – ranging from 15th century hymnals to mid-20th century science fiction – the collection is particularly strong in the areas of literature, history, religion, philosophy and natural history.

There is not a standardized method for determining a book’s status as a rare text, but Forbes suggested a number of possible features that can contribute. “Age is only a beginning point. The year 1800 is considered a watershed because before that, every book is hand-printed.”

Forbes said that demand and subject matter are ultimately better for judging rarity. “Rarity comes from demand. Being the first book about a subject can also be an important factor,” Forbes said.

Those interested in viewing the collection or using it for research purposes can’t simply walk in and pull a book off the shelf. The books are kept in a highly controlled environment to allow for their continued preservation.

“We wear gloves when we handle the books and maintain a constant temperature and humidity. If a book is in particularly bad shape, we’ll have a book conservationist come in.”

And as the collection continues to grow, students can be assured that the Rare Books Room will continue to preserve both the invaluable texts – and unprecedented literary history – of the old Wise Library.

The room is accessible by appointment only. For more information, visit www.libraries.wvu.edu/rarebooks.

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