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Library department preserves rare books

Matt Bramanti | Thursday, April 22, 2004

Notre Dame is a university imbued with the past. Students note 32 years of coeducation. Irish faithful boast of the glories of 115 football seasons. Domers celebrate the University’s 162-year history.

But those times pale in comparison to the history contained in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, tucked away behind tinted glass doors in the concourse of the Hesburgh Library.

Ben Panciera, the rare books curator, said some items in the collection date back to the origins of the written word.

“We have collections that span the history of writing [beginning with] cuneiform,” Panciera said. Cuneiform was a type of writing in ancient Mesopotamia, beginning about 5,000 years ago.

Panciera is no stranger to old books. Before taking his current position, he worked in the University’s Medieval Institute, then as a cataloguer in the rare books department.

The department encompasses about 80,000 volumes and 60 medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. About 100 of those volumes were printed before 1500, Panciera said.

He said simple means are used to preserve the books, which are surprisingly resistant to deterioration.

“We have extra monitors and precautions for temperature and humidity,” he said. “And we ensure a completely lightless environment.”

He said the type of paper used in early printing is more durable than modern paper. Early books were printed on “rag bond” – paper made of cotton, linen or other textile materials, similar to currency. Modern paper is made of wood pulp treated with acid, which destroys the pages over time. In addition, machine-bound books don’t hold up as well as handmade books, Panciera said.

“A pre-1830 book is actually a lot more durable than a post-1830 book,” he explained.

He said that while the department’s antique collections are extensive, they can be condensed into several specific areas.

“The emphasis is theology, the history of Catholic thought, English and Irish literature and Renaissance Italy,” he said.

The Italian collection includes a unique assembly of works by Florentine poet Dante Alighieri.

“We’ve got almost a complete run of the editions of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” from the advent of printing to the 17th century,” Panciera said.

Several notable scientific works are also housed in the department, including works by Copernicus, Galileo and Newton. One of the most prized is a first edition of Copernicus’ “De Revolution-ibus,” in which the astronomer laid out his conception of the heliocentric universe. The theory was in direct contravention of 16th century Catholic teaching, which held that the Earth was the center of the universe.

“Only 300 [copies] were printed because of the controversy,” Panciera said.

The department even has a page from a Gutenberg Bible, the first printed book in history. Panciera said single pages are more common in collections than entire volumes, due to the extreme scarcity of intact books.

He said the last sale of a complete Gutenberg Bible was in the early 1980s, when the University of Texas paid $1.5 million. That would be a bargain today.

“My guess is if you bought it today, it would cost about $40 million,” Panciera said. “If we had a Gutenberg Bible, I’d be ecstatic.”

The department also contains an extensive collection of American sports literature and paraphernalia, especially 19th and 20th century boxing and wrestling. Panciera said the sports collection is becoming increasingly relevant for modern researchers.

“It’s the sort of stuff scholars would have had much use for until recently,” he said. “But now it’s acknowledged that sports is important to American social history.”

In addition to combative sports, the collection also includes a great deal of baseball material.

“We have very extensive records on the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League,” Panciera said. The league operated from 1943-1954 and was featured in the 1992 film “A League of Their Own.”

Panciera said the department is expanding some of its collections, particularly the Latin American and Irish sections.

“We’ll focus on Argentine historical materials,” he said. “And our most recent collection is about 2,000 Irish novels from the 19th and 20th century.”

Panciera praised the university’s commitment to maintaining its historical materials.

“It’s really a collection of national significance,” Panciera said. “We get people … who travel here just to use the collection.”