OSU’s rare book collection has some historic gems

Visitors to Special Collections admire a Gradual, or hymnal used by Gregorian monks. The piece weighs around 37 pounds and has iron clasps. Date: Oct. 26, 2011 (photo: Theresa Hogue)

Some of Oregon State University’s most rare collections rarely see the light of day, but part of the McDonald Rare Book Collection got an airing this week when library technician Trevor Sangathe brought a handful of pieces out of hiding.

A handful of faculty and staff gathered for a glimpse of some of the collections most unusual pieces, which were hidden under pieces of black velvet until their unveiling.

The collection began, oddly enough, with some troublesome tumbleweed.

OSU caught the eye of California timber baroness Mary McDonald in the 1930s, after her land was plagued by tumbleweed. The problem was resolved by an OSU faculty member, and in response, McDonald began donating to the university. In addition to her interest in the outdoors, McDonald was also a lover of books.

“When she learned we did not have a rare book collection, she was horrified,” Sangathe said. She first donated her own collection of rare books to the university, and then added more through the years, finally donating an entire room for the collection, which the library eventually outgrew.

In 1986, the collection was absorbed by Special Collections (now Special Collections & Archives Research Center), and placed in a controlled environment to protect the delicate materials.

“Rare books are not our focus,” Sangathe said, as Special Collections specializes in the history of 20thcentury science and technology. “But we have a wonderful sampling of a very broad group of volumes of literature.”

The oldest piece in the McDonald Rare Book Collection at OSU is a Sumerian cuneiform tablet dating approximately 2041 B.C. The fragile piece has a prosaic purpose, it's a receipt for the donation of livestock to the feast for a Sumerian king. Date: Oct. 26, 2011 (photo: Theresa Hogue)

The oldest and most delicate piece in the collection is a Sumerian cuneiform dating from 2041 B.C. The small tablet is about the size of a bar of soap, and is covered with markings made by a stylus, a small writing utensil. Although it looks exotic, it’s actually a rather prosaic piece, Sangathe explained.

“It’s a receipt,” he said, of the donation of some livestock to the feast of a Sumerian king. These receipts were often tossed aside in large piles, and weren’t considered to be worth much attention, but now are a valuable piece of history.

A long scroll from the early 19th century is only slightly more sturdy, and contains a much more vivid story, that of the Book of Esther. The elegant Hebrew script dances across the scroll’s yellowed animal skin, which has been carefully sewn together in sheets.

Trevor Sandgathe, a library technician, unrolls a Hebrew scroll of The Book Of Esther. The piece is part of the McDonald Rare Book Collection at OSU. Date: Oct. 26, 2011 (photo: Theresa Hogue)

Just down the table, a tiny page of manuscript from the late 1200s displays the traditional red, blue and gold illustration popular with monks and scriptoria, while a hefty wood-bound hymnal known as a Gradual loomed on the other side. The 13th century tome’s vellum (skin) pages were painstakingly illustrated, and include a long list of Saints’ holidays in elegant Latin script.

“Owning books was considered a major mark of wealth,” Sangathe said. “If you were a patron of literature, you were special.”

Some more modern pieces in the collection include letters from John Astor and Theodore Roosevelt, and several series of handsome bound sets with hand-tooled leather and watercolor illustrations. One set, the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, is a “special” special edition that contains a collection of original signatures in the back section, including Lincoln’s.

An original plate by Charles Dickens’ illustrator ‘Phiz’ (Hablot Knight Browne), and a stack of first edition Edgard Rice Burroughs pulp fiction novels, helped round out the exhibit, giving everyone who attended a taste of the rich collection being housed at OSU.

~ Theresa Hogue

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