By Emily Salvatori, Editor
Priceless might not be the word you think of when you picture the Elbin library, but maybe it should be. When the library was built in 1970, West Liberty gained much more than just a new building. On the top floor of the of the library tucked away, hidden in plain sight, are precious artifacts — some of which are thousands of years old.
Nelle M. Krise taught at West Liberty State College for 40 years as an associate professor of English Literature. When the new library was built, she donated her collection of literature to West Liberty. The Rare Book Room is alive because of her. She believed you only had what you give away, and she practiced exactly what she preached. Her love of literature lives on through the Rare Book Room.
Walking into the Rare Book Room feels as if one is leaving the library and West Liberty entirely. The view beyond the other side of the glass display cases give the only indication that you are still in the library. A dehumidifier hums constantly to keep the moisture in the room down so the books remain in good condition. In the far corner of the room, a bronze bust of William Shakespeare stands guard over the books, just like he watched over Krise’s classroom all those years ago.
The name of the room is slightly deceiving because the Rare Book Room contains more than just books; however, because the theme is history of the written word, the room contains examples of this throughout history.
A small Babylonian clay tablet fragment from 2350 B.C. that is a receipt for sheep and goats is in the Rare Book Room. There is a papyrus fragment from Egypt around 30 B.C. There is also a hand-blocked Chinese leaf from the late 12th century. All three of these artifacts, along with other books and manuscripts, are exhibited in the Rare Book Room in display cases, and are able to be viewed by anyone without stepping foot into the room.
Katy Zane, who came to WLU as a graduate student from Wayne State University, began working in the Rare Book Room to gain experience as an archivist.
Zane said, “The challenge sometimes is to make sure you know your collection. I’ve been in this room a lot, and I accidentally found this at one point.” The text she found was a Chaucer text printed by William Morris called “The Floure and the Leafe, The Boke of Cupide, God of Love, or the Cuckow and the Nightingale.”
She said, “He was a famous trickster. He loved to come up with really elaborate printing blocks for books like this. It looks like it is handwritten. It is not handwritten. It’s printed. He loved fooling people.” This book was one of the last he ever printed in his life, and it is one out of only 300 printed.
At one point, one of the display cases had a collection of Arthur Rackham books filling up all the shelves. He illustrated many children’s books, and many at West Liberty are first editions— some are even signed by him. On the inside cover of “The Wind in the Willows,” in Krise’s handwriting she inscribed, “The most beautiful of all the Rackham books.” Looking at the illustrations inside, it is not hard to figure out why she thought that.
The “jewel” of the Rare Book Room is a fifteenth-century prayer book called “The Book of Hours.” Bright hues of red, blue, and real gold grace the pages of the illuminated manuscript. “The Book of Hours” was painstakingly written and illustrated by an anonymous monk with a quill pen on vellum, essentially tattooing the paper made from the skin of a calf with ink. In the past, it was easier to sell “The Book of Hours” by the leaf, so having the entire book is very uncommon.
Zane said, “It’s hard to see one in person that is outside of a big establishment, so the fact that we have one here is super, super special.”
Even though the room is kept locked, if you want to see the room all you have to do is ask. Zane said, “It’s a weird little line you kind of have to straddle that yes, you want everyone to have it for centuries to come, but if nobody can use it then what good is it?”
West Liberty is doing its best to preserve the legacy of Nelle Krise and the books inside the room. However, the room and all the treasures inside are open if you only ask. Ask the librarian anytime Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. to tour the Rare Book Room.
Photo Credit: Emily Salvatori