The Lilly Library: Anything But Hands Off

Visitors to the Indiana University Lilly Library find a wealth of knowledge and history at their finger tips.

Lilly Library

Photo:

Indiana University's Lilly Library

Megan Meyer: In the heart of the Indiana University campus is a veritable trove filled with invaluable artifacts. Not very many people know about it.

The Lilly Library is due for a visit.

Trevor Winn: Hi, can I help you?

MM: Luckily, THIS treasure trove is open to the public.

That said, it’s a little different than a regular library. First off, you have to go through the librarian at the front desk, who will ask you to check your bags in the locker room. Don’t forget a picture ID and above all…

TW: We don’t allow pen.

MM: No pens?

TW: We don’t use pens.

MM: OK – no pens – just pencils and laptops — so leave any pens in the locker. Then you approach another set of locked doors where you wait for a click…

There’s my click!

MM: And open to find the Lilly’s reading room. This is where anyone can read rare books and manuscripts, even comic books!

Christoph Irmscher is an English professor and he spends a lot of time in the reading room.

Christoph Irmscher: The Lilly Library is one of the best repositories for, well, pretty much everything – but the Sylvia Plath collection is outstanding.

MM: Christoph found a schedule that Sylvia Plath wrote for her child’s nanny.

He says that Plath was enormously compulsive. She typed out everything from her responses to complaining students, notes, letters, and this schedule that left no room for improvisation.

MM: But then, you flip over this pink sheet of paper –

remember, this is not a reprint, but the original paper – and Plath’s poet husband, Ted Hughes had used the back of her schedule to scrawl out a few verses.

CI: You essentially have the entire marriage and what went wrong in this marriage. You have it in a nutshell.

MM: Hughes and Plath had a tumultuous relationship that ended in Plath’s suicide

CI: And I just love the contrast between this hyper-organized schedule that Plath put out for her baby and Hughes’ absolutely fantastic imagination here.

MM: For Christoph, there is so much to be taken from seeing unpublished manuscripts like this one.

CI: And I just love thinking about literature not as the production of a solitary genius, but as something that has a seat in life. And it kind of pulls literature down from whatever pedestal it’s on and it becomes something you can know stuff about, you can weigh in on it.

——

MM: Joel Silver, the Lilly Library’s Curator of Books brought one of his favorite items out of the stacks.

Joel Silver: This book is the Shakespeare First Folio. It’s the first collected edition of Shakespeare

MM: This book, this VERY book he’s looking at right now was made in 1623.

JS: It’s one of the most famous, if not the most famous, books in English literature. It publishes about half of Shakespeare’s works for the first time — and it’s also one of my favorite books.

MM: The Lilly has all kinds of special materials. They have a Gutenberg Bible, handwritten letters from Charles Darwin, a first edition of Mein Kampf, and a 4 foot long first edition of Audobon’s Birds of America – a book they also have … in miniature form.

Becky Cape: I’m Becky Cape. I’m head of reference and public services here at the Lilly Library.

MM: Becky says the Lilly Library has about 25,000 miniature books.

BC: Some of these are about the size of a head of a pin.

MM: So why would someone want to make a miniature book? Some saw it as a challenge and travelers liked books they could slip into a pocket, too.

BC: The other reason people made miniature books is because they were easily concealed. So that if it had content that was either illegal or pornographic or something you that you just didn’t want anybody to know about. You could have it and you could hide it very easily.

MM: The Lilly has the first book printed in the United States on birth control.

BC: And it was done in a miniature format because it was illegal to disseminate information about birth control at that time.

MM: Back in the Reading Room, a librarian walks newcomers through the process of finding what interests them.

I’d like to see a map of ancient Jerusalem. Do you think you could help me with that?

Danielle Goodwin: Sure, you can probably check on IUCAT or the Lilly Library website. We also have the card catalogue.

MM: Card catalogue. That definitely brings back memories. The librarian comes back around after a few minutes to show what she came up with.

DG: …a map based on Ptolemy‘s Geographia. It would probably would have a map of Jerusalem. We could call it up and you could take a look.

MM: I’d love that. So, what do I do next?

DG: We can just get a call card and you can fill that out with the call number and your information. Then we’ll get a page to bring it out for you.

MM: She brings out these foam supports and lays them on the table – those help protect the binding of very old books – then out comes a torso-sized volume – the cover is all brown and splotchy.

DG: It looks like some of the maps are in the beginning part.

MM: So what I’m touching is actually from 1550, right?

DG: Yes. This book is from 1550.

MM: … And then she returns to her desk and lets you peruse the book yourself. YOU get to handle a book that’s nearly half a century old.

Everything is in Latin, but there are a lot of illustrations. There are old maps of Paris and Rome and Athens as they looked in 1550 … and towards the end … Jerusalem! OK, so it’s not ancient Jerusalem — but you could still call this trip a success.

CI: You get hooked on it.

MM: Christoph warns about the addiction of working with documents like these – especially the letters.

CI: There’s something about the physical experience of holding an item in your hand. There’s a bit of a mystique associated with it, too, I would say – that it was touched by the very person who’s work you are interested in.

Megan Meyer

Megan Meyer is an online and radio producer for WFIU's Arts Bureau and local food program Earth Eats. Megan grew up in South Dakota and later lived in France for 3 years. She was an intern for NPR's Science Desk in the spring of 2009, and joined WFIU in June 2009.

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  • Nancy

    I hope many visit the Lilly Library…..this interview makes me want to re-visit the library. Rare books are addicting. Great piece Megan, thanks….

  • mikecagle

    “nearly half a century” eh? I think that's not what you meant to say. Very nice report otherwise, though!

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