From The Idaho State Journal, Wednesday Dec. 27, 1995

Explanation
I had always been interested to know if the Idaho State University Library in Pocatello had a collection of rare books, and if so, what they were like. The story was picked up by the Associated Press bureau in Boise for its weekend Intermountain Feature Exchange, and was published in The Idaho Statesman in Boise and The Twin Falls Times-News, and a few other papers around the state. A few weeks later I got a letter from Tom Trusky of the Idaho Center for the Book in Boise saying my story had challenged him to find out exactly where the oldest book in Idaho is. I later wrote about his findings in another story which the AP also picked up.

The Rarest of Books
Centuries-old ISU collection provides peek into the past

By Arik Hesseldahl
Of The Journal

"A book is the only immortality." — Rufus Choate

"This preoccupation with the printed page undoubtedly saved me from many a less wholesome addiction during my formative years." — Glenn E. Tyler

At first glance, they appear to be unremarkable, almost ugly.

Handling them stirs up dust, and a musty smell that sticks to the hands and clothes of anyone who braves the special collections department, in the basement of the Eli M. Oboler Library at Idaho State University.

Only a few steps away from a modern computer and telecommunications center are kept a few of the dusty remnants of a time almost forgotten. But open any one of the volumes of the library's rare books collection, and you get a glimpse of the world as it appeared to the writers of the past.

Interest in the library's rare books collection, which includes several books that are between 200 and 400 years old, is generally limited to the occasional student doing obscure research, professors and the odd history buff. Not many students have a reason to browse the 300 or so volumes that Gary Domitz, the library's head of special collections, has allowed on the shelves of the rare book room. Another 300 are too damaged to be handled, and are stored in a secure, climate and light-controlled room.

The oldest book in the library, and possibly the oldest printed book in Idaho, is "The Sermons of Maister John Calvin on the Booke of Job," published in London in 1584.

Calvin, who spread the Protestant Reformation to France and Switzerland and influenced English Puritans, died in 1564, 20 years before the book was published. At about the same time, a young William Shakespeare had not yet begun writing his famous plays.

Publishing books with movable type was a relatively new industry at the time. About 130 years before, Johannes Gutenberg perfected his method of publishing that led to his famous "Gutenberg Bibles." Generally, rich people were the only ones who could afford to own books.

Even by today's standards, the Calvin book is impressive, and expensive-looking. Had it been published this year, its cover price surely would not be cheap. It is 12 3/4 inches tall, 8 1/2 inches wide, and contains about 750 pages of Calvin's sermons, speeches and religious writings.

Perhaps more interesting than the book's text are the markings left by two previous owners, one probably the initial owner, and another in the late 1600s, who both highlighted important sections of the text by drawing pointing hands in the margins accompanied by written notes.

Another, possibly older book, is a collection of hand-written poems and religious writings in Farsi, an Arabian language. It is believed to contain recitations of the Muslim prophet Mohammed, though most of its contents, as well as its author, age, and place of origin are unknown. Its age has been estimated to be 750 years old, but no one is sure.

"We've had students from the middle east come in who are able to read bits and pieces of it. We don't know how old it is. But the paper it's written on is just incredible. It'll last forever," Domitz said.

These two books were among the estimated 20,000 volumes left to the university by Glenn E. Tyler, an ISU history professor who died in 1987. Of Tyler's library, about 300 volumes ended up in the rare book room. The others, at Tyler's request, were mixed in with the library's general circulation collection.

At the time of his death, Tyler's modest brick house at 28 Purdue was literally crammed with his collection of books dealing with the relationships of science, religion and philosophy.

ISU history professor Jack Owens, a friend of Tyler's who oversees what has become known as the Glenn E. Tyler Collection, fondly remembers visiting Tyler's house to see the infamous collection of the somewhat eccentric Tyler.

In an article he wrote for Rendezvous, a university journal in 1989, Owens recalled his first tour Tyler's infamous collection.

"Roman history in a closet off the stairway, Medieval in his bedroom, Renaissance by the fireplace, Russia and the United States in the workshop. ...The experience was so overwhelming that when he excused himself to go to the bathroom, I did an impolite thing; I looked in the refrigerator. There were no books inside, but there was a shelf on the top," Owens wrote.

Though it initially appeared to be a fairly random hodge-podge of books that Tyler had acquired over the years, Owens said the collection has a focus.

"It is a very carefully-put-together collection to support his basic research on the relationship between the development of the Reformation on one hand, and the scientific revolution on the other, and that is what interested him. These are two major societal changes that occurred at exactly the same time. He was trying to understand all the potential relationships of the two," Owens said.

Owens said students are encouraged to use the collection in their research.

"They provide students with a valuable opportunity to use primary sources in their original condition. ...In the case of the Tyler collection, that research can involve not only the history of science and medicine, but also that of philosophy, political theory, religion and literature, which means that students and faculty of other disciplines will also find the materials useful," Owens said.

Sidebars

Autographed Hemingway book in collection

Not all of the books contained the the ISU Rare books collection come from before the 20th Century.

One book in the collection is a 1948 edition of Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls."

On the inside front cover is note from Hemingway to a friend named Mary L. Brown, that says: "With all good wishes from her friend, Ernest Hemingway."

Just under the author's signature is an additional note from his wife Mary which reads: "And ditto from Mary Hemingway."

Enclosed in a pocket in the back cover of the book, is a typewritten letter from Mrs. Hemingway to Brown, who apparently knew the couple while they were living in Ketchum. The letter, dated Feb. 21, 1948, informs Brown that the author and his wife had returned to Cuba and asks Brown to mail some enclosed cards to other friends informing them of the move.

"But I truly miss Sun Valley and the mountains and the snow," Mrs. Hemingway wrote in the letter.

Fact Box

A sampling of the books kept in the ISU Library's rare books collection:


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