Rare Books at the U Make History Come Alive

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(Photo by Erin Burns)
(Photo by Erin Burns)
(Photo by Erin Burns)

 

There is only one place at the U where students have access to a $500,000 copy of Isaac Newton’s first discussion of gravitational theory — the U’s rare book collection.

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Located on the fourth floor of the Marriott Library, Newton’s first edition is one of the many famous works students have access to. Among the shelves are journals from 1917 when Albert Einstein was first seen in print, books inscribed with the signature of Nikola Tesla, first editions of John Locke and Martin Luther as well as copies of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”

Alison Conner, a curator in rare books, said the U’s collection is unique from other ones in the nation because people don’t need permission to access even the rarest book.

“Being a public university, the students of the U as well as the general public have a right to know about the books we have and we want to allow people to come in and experience the books for themselves,” Connor said.

The books are kept in a locked vault where humidity is controlled and the temperature is kept at 58-62 degrees Farenheit to ensure safety and preservation of the books. The floor is lifted to ward off water damage and the shelves are bolted to the ground and built to sway slightly in case of an earthquake.

Luise Poulton, the managing curator of the rare books collection, said the U’s collection is the single largest asset Utah owns.

According to Poulton and Conner, there are currently 80,000 pieces. The most expensive piece is a Book of Commandments containing a description written by Joseph Smith about his revelations from God. The book is valued at one million dollars.

However, Poulton said the collection goes beyond the monetary value.

“The real value of the collection cannot be measured in numbers or even in the physical sense,” Poulton said. “It is scary to allow people to come in and hold the books, but it is necessary. It is not about the money, but absolutely about the emotional connection that can be made with the past and with the books.”

Poulton and Conner are currently trying to bring the rare books collection to the virtual world. Everything in the collection is scanned and students can find the material on the rare books website through the Marriott Library website. Additionally, rare books has a blog updated weekly with a “book of the week” and any upcoming workshops.

“Our hope is that students will look us up online and come in to see for themselves the amazing treasures we have available to them,” Poulton said. “We want students to hold centuries old books in their hands, feel the textured pages, breathe in the scent of the past and really connect with the books and the people who made history come alive.”

m.royal@chronicle.utah.edu

@mary_royal

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