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Newberry Library Is Sharing Rare Books

By sharing the cost of expensive manuscripts with universities, Chicago's Newberry Library ensures the tomes are available to researchers.

July 16, 2006|William Mullen | Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — A good librarian can make magic by bringing together the right book and the right reader. That is what happened the day Paul Saenger put a book of religious music not performed in centuries into the hands of Calvin Bower.

Around the year 1300, Portuguese monks had hand-inscribed the processional music they sang as they filed into chapel for prayers. But with the archaic notation system out of use, the music probably had not been performed in 500 years.

Bower, a professor of medieval studies at the University of Notre Dame, opened the book and stared at the old musical notations -- small, oddly spaced squares that the monks had inked across the thick animal-skin parchment pages, still pliable. Then Bower did something remarkable.

"He started to hum," Saenger said. The long-dormant processional came to life, a rich, stately piece that opened with just four notes and swelled to 10.

"Calvin is one of a handful of scholars in the world who can read that notation," Saenger said. "It probably was the first time it had been performed in 500 years."

The manuscript exemplifies the sort of object that Saenger, curator of rare books and manuscripts at the Newberry Library, has been acquiring and saving for posterity through an unusual partnership with various Midwestern universities.

Finding such a book intact today is rare, because as other musical notation systems came into use, the books with the old system got cut up, their pages used for bindings of newer tomes.

"Things like this book have really become popular as collectibles," said Saenger. "Prices on rare books and manuscripts have increased dramatically in the last couple of decades. It has really hurt university libraries that have their own rare book collections."

With money so tight on campuses, it is increasingly difficult for university libraries to persuade administrators to spend money to enlarge rare book collections when a single volume can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

That is where the Newberry, an independent research library, steps in. Under the partnership run by Saenger, when a desirable rare book comes up for sale, the library puts up two-thirds of the money and one of the schools one-third. The Newberry keeps the book eight months a year; the school can have it for four.

In the case of the book of processional chants, Saenger saw it 10 years ago in a book dealer's catalog in Germany. He arranged to buy it with Western Michigan University and locked it into a vault, awaiting the perfect person to whom to show it.

That was Bower, a musicologist and accomplished vocalist who visited Newberry months later to use its renowned collection of 3,000 hand-inscribed medieval books and manuscripts.

The partnership plan started with Notre Dame in 1995, Saenger said, when a professor there saw a rare book in a catalog and called the Newberry, thinking the volume was too valuable for scholars to allow it be sold to a private collection. He wondered if the library might buy it.

"I asked him if Notre Dame could come up with a third of the cost," Saenger said. "The book would reside here, but it could go to Notre Dame part of the year for study by scholars there. It was an idea I had been kicking around on my own for years, because the Newberry certainly doesn't have funds to buy everything we want, either."

Kent Emery, a professor of medieval studies at Notre Dame, was fascinated by the novel suggestion.

"It is an inspired idea," Emery said. "It means colleges have a way to acquire books for hands-on research they never could afford before. It makes sense that the books are kept at the Newberry, coming to our campus when our scholars need them for research or teaching."

By the time a joint agreement was fashioned with the help of a lawyer, the book had been sold, but Saenger soon found a nearly identical one on the market.

The next school to team up with Newberry was Western Michigan University, which has a strong medieval studies program. The school helped acquire the monks' songbook and, in 1996, a 1450 German manual that instructed nuns in the ritual of service.

In 1997, the University of Illinois and the library bought an enormous heraldry scroll made in the 1440s during the Hundred Years' War between England and France. Hung in the castle of a French aristocrat in Burgundy, it showed the crests of all the royal and noble houses of the day and how the families were interrelated.

"It would have been displayed in those days as a statement of the herald-bearer's family legitimacy and his claims to his land and kingdom," Saenger said.

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