Ask A Librarian

Rare Books Room Home to Ancient Texts

Posted by Monte Maxwell.
January 28th, 2008

The Daily Athenaeum, January 24, 2008

By Kathryn Gregory
Managing Editor

Harold M. Forbes slowly puts on a pair of pristine white gloves and reaches onto a dusty shelf to grab a treasure from a collection that dates back hundreds of years. He turns the treasure over in his hand and slowly opens the binding to reveal the intricate details of the pages within.

The book, which is part of Dennis Diderot’s Dictionary, is just one of the many rare finds that have a safe and well-maintained home at West Virginia University’s Downtown Library Complex.

The gloves are worn to protect the books from oils that might transfer from hands to pages, which can speed along the process of a book’s deterioration.

Forbes is the curator of rare books at WVU libraries and has been working on collecting and preserving the books since 1989.

Books are donated to the Rare Books Room, and the curator’s job is to preserve the books and hunt for any books that might be missing from a particular collection.

Stewart Plein, assistant West Virginia rare books curator, holds open “Hortus Indicus Malabaricus.” This botanical
book dates back to 1700 and is translated in four languages.

The room was started in 1951 when Arthur S. Dayton, a WVU alumnus, donated his own collection and established the Rare Books Room.

“He specialized in Shakespeare and Mark Twain. He had a tremendously strong collection,” Forbes said.

Dayton’s books were of vast importance when collected during the 1887 – 1948 span of his life, but “the importance of the books has increased dramatically since the initial donation,” Forbes said.

Through the years, Forbes and his assistant Stewart Plein have worked on collecting items that might be missing from certain collections.

“The strength of our collections are based on our donations,” Forbes said.

The Rare Books Room contains one of the largest collections of Shakespeare’s original works contained in four folios.

“All four folio’s contain all the plays written by Shakespeare as believed to be at that time,” Forbes said. The initial folio, “Mr. William Shakepeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies,” dates back to 1623.

Reproductions of the folios are sitting on the shelf of the room, while the originals are stored securely in a safe.

Along with one of the largest Shakespeare collections in the world, the Rare Books Room is also home to 20th century British and American literature.

The Kentucky author Jesse Stewart, who mainly wrote stories about Appalachia, has a vast collection in the room.

Maryanne Dalton, who was a friend of Stewart’s and a long-time collector of his books, donated her copies, many of which were signed by the author himself.

One such inscription reads,“To a fellow teacher and friend, a gift from the Appalachian hills. Your background is my background.”

There are multiple copies of many of the books, including Stewart’s, around the room.

“We get donations of many of the same books. If it’s moderately valuable, we will keep the best copy, maybe the best two or three in the room, and put the rest out on the library for people to check out,” Forbes said.

Another reason that there are multiple copies of books is because many printing presses used to print various bindings and versions of books during the 19th century.

“A book could be published in blue, green or red cloth, in leather or just with leather corners,” Forbes said.

The Downtown Library Complex can boast that it holds one of the largest collections of works by author Isaac Asimov, with only two or three of his titles missing.

The curator and those who work in the Rare Books Room are actively searching for the missing volumes to complete their collection.

“An alumnus, Larry Shaver, donated about 650 items to the library. Six hundred of these were books, and the rest were posters, board games and toys that were all related to works by Isaac Asimov,” Forbes said.

As a result “we have the world’s largest collect of Asimov works,” he said.

The Mark Twain collection is famous as well and is one of the most complete collections of his works in the world.

“I had no idea that he had written so much until I started to work with the rare books,” Forbes said.

There are many late 20th century books in the room that are being kept in pristine condition, but there are “lots of old ones, dating back to the 1400s too,” he said.

Due to the sensitive nature of some of these books, which were originally bound in leather or vellum, which is dried and treated animal skin, the room is temperature and humidity controlled.

“We try to keep the room at 66 to 68 degrees and humidity at about 40 percent to protect the books,” Forbes said.

If the books are not kept in these conditions, they can dry out or get moist, warp and develop mold, he said.

Some of the covers on books that were not kept in good condition before being brought to the Rare Books Room had special covers and boxes made for them.

These special boxes, which fit right around the books, prevent the covers from deteriorating and allows the library to keep the original presence of the book intact.

One of the books kept in the room is a Missal from 1429. This book was hand painted and scribed by monks and contained the daily mass. The book cover is an inch-thick board of oak that is covered by leather and has small feet on the bottom of the book so that it could stand freely.

“The book would stand so that everyone could read it during mass,” Plein said.

The “Hortus Indicus Malabaricus” is a botanical work from the 1700s.

“The book shows plants that were known at the time, and the name is written in four different languages,” Plein said. “The interesting thing is that none of the plants are known now, and scientists are trying to discover them,” she said.

Volumes in the Rare Books Room may be used under supervision by researchers who agree to handle them with great care. Those interested in making arrangements to use a rare book can visit the West Virginia and Regional History Collection or call 293-3536.

“We just love working with rare books,” Forbes said.

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