I looked forward to visiting my friend Paul Courant, university librarian and dean of libraries, for the next installment of my “5 Treasures” series. Paul has a deep passion for the role of libraries in society and is a national leader in creating the digital library of the 21st century. Also, he’s smart as hell and funny as all get-out. So I was in high spirits when we met to see some of the library’s rare books and items from the special collections.
But what I didn’t expect was goose bumps and shaky knees. I was overwhelmed immediately with the beauty and the historical significance of the treasures in front of me. I still am.
Let’s start with the item that most stunned me—simply because I had no idea the biblical treasure was part of our famous papyrus collection: Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews.
Yes, you read that correctly. The Epistles of St. Paul. Our collection includes 30 leaves of papyrus dating from 180–220 AD (the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin has the remaining 60 leaves of St. Paul’s letters). It was copied by a scribe in a beautiful hand, and is the earliest known copy of the work in the world. I simply couldn’t believe what I was looking at.
The University’s papyrus collection is the largest in North America, with 17,000 fragments from ancient Egypt. And talk about global: The biggest collections in the world are in Cairo, London, Paris, Vienna…and Ann Arbor. We’re now digitizing major portions of the collection so they are available to scholars and students everywhere. Once seen primarily as artifacts and divided among many museums and libraries worldwide, papyrus digitization enables scholars to “piece together” information about language, culture, history and art in the ancient world.
Next, we moved on to remarkable examples of the library’s Islamic Manuscripts Collection. Among the beautifully illustrated and rare texts is this gorgeous, 19th-century Ottoman Qur’an. It is exquisite. This copy was executed by an Ottoman master of calligraphy in 1892, who devoted his life to copying the sacred texts. Astonishingly, this book was his 102nd Qur’an. The works in this collection are drawing significant interest. Collection director Evyn Kropf told me that just this week she has fielded many inquiries from Iran, for instance. Most of the holdings have been digitized only in the last couple of years, and so for the first time they are easily accessible to scholars around the world.
And now, another historical mind-blower:
This manuscript was written by Galileo beginning in 1609. The document is part draft letter, part scratch paper—and reveals a compelling story of Galileo as inventor, entrepreneur and scientist. At the top of the page, Galileo begins drafting a letter to his government about the magnifying “eyeglass” he invented that would be useful for military purposes on land and sea. He wanted to sell it. Or, as Paul Courant quipped, “surely this was one of science’s earliest grant applications.” Over the course of the next few months, Galileo continued to make improvements to his design until the scope reached about 30 power magnification, all the while turning the eyeglass skyward. In the beginning of 1610, he pulled out the piece of paper with the early draft letter, and used the remaining portion to note his nightly observations of Jupiter with three bright objects nearby.
A few nights later, he realized he was watching moons orbit Jupiter.
Galileo quickly published his findings, in Latin, in a pamphlet called The Starry Messenger. And guess what? Our library has a first edition of that document, too. It is a fascinating look at his detailed observations of the Moon, of Jupiter and its moons, and of the first-time evidence that planetary objects orbited around anything other than the Earth.
From Galileo we moved to one of the first real works of fiction, a new kind of literature not based on mythology or legends: The shipwreck adventure Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe.
U-M’s special collections include this first edition of Robinson Crusoe, printed in 1719 (and in fact we have the largest collection of Robinson Crusoe materials anywhere). “It was an immediate sensation when first published,” said senior curator Peggy Daub. She told me that it remains the most translated, most adapted story in modern literature—think of the TV show Lost as a modern-day example.
To end this blog post, I want to start at the beginning…the very beginning of the library’s vast collection.
John James Audubon’s The Birds of America, created between 1827–1838.
This enormous and visual thriller is one of the world’s most prized collector’s items, and the most valuable book in the U-M collection. Its large size accommodates the life-size, full-color representation of Audubon’s birds. The prints were based on his original watercolors, engraved in London and hand-colored according to Audubon’s instructions. There are 125 full sets in existence today. You can see Birds of America on display in the library’s Audubon room, where the 435-page book is turned one page each week.
But in reading the library notes about this piece, I discovered another story I hadn’t known. The Birds of America was the first book purchased for the university’s library. Can you imagine this? The Regents authorized the purchase price of $970 on February 5, 1838—what an amazing sum of money for a fledgling university that had not even held its first class! The University of Michigan Library now includes more than 8 million volumes, but it all started with Audubon. It speaks to the deep cultural commitment at the heart of Michigan.
We know how much libraries matter. These special, rare, historical gems take my breath away. And digitizing our holdings for future generations is as important a mission for today’s libraries as archiving our collective past. I’m proud of U-M for its leadership in digitization, and for our commitment: Make as much of the world’s knowledge as possible available to as many people as possible.
Thanks to Paul Courant and the fabulous library experts who gave me two of the most compelling hours I’ve ever spent on campus: Peggy Daub, Martha Conway, Adam Hyatt, Evyn Kropf, Julie Herrada, Karl Longstreth and Bryan Skib. You guys rock.
I had to choose just five of the many works they shared with me during my visit (why the heck did I name this series “5 Treasures,” anyway?). For more treasures and more stories, spend some time with my Flickr photostream. As a teaser: You’ll discover a guidebook to pilgrimages; the oldest piece of printing in the library’s collection (from a Japanese woodblock in the 8th century AD); a gorgeous map of Paris in the early 1700s (drawn in isometric perspective); a scrapbook from the Labadie Collection of social protest movements; Paul’s favorite book in the library; and Walt Whitman’s self-published Leaves of Grass, to name a few. And click here for a recent story my team produced on the papyrus collection.
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