The place is any bibliophile’s dream.
Even the setting of the Luther Seminary Rare Book Room, on the upper floor of Gullixson Hall, lends itself to the stuff of magic and make-believe.
But while the library is fantastical, it also provides very real service to patrons and the school community as a whole, according to Bruce Eldevik, recently retired reference and special collections librarian, and Mary Ann Teske, catalog and collection management librarian.
“The library’s collection of facsimile editions of important biblical manuscripts has occasioned regular visits by Hebrew Bible and New Testament faculty and their students,” they write in a special chapter they co-authored for the book “Preserving the Past, Engaging the Future: Theology and Religion in American Special Collections,” published by the American Theological Library Association.
The pair’s specific work, “Hogwarts in Minnesota: The History, Description, and Impact of Special Collections at Luther Seminary” details not only how the sacred and historic texts came to reside in Luther’s collection, but also how those ancient works are still used today.
“Hebrew Bible classes will typically examine the tenth- and eleventh-century Aleppo and Leningrad codices, aided by seeing alongside both the library’s eighteenth-century Esther Scroll and sixteenth-century Syriac liturgical codex,” they write.
A codex is essentially an ancient book, explain researchers at the Dartmouth Ancient Books Lab. The volumes were made from sheets of papyrus or parchment, then folded together to form what would be recognized today as pages in a book.
The seminary’s Aleppo and Leningrad codices are both facsimiles of the originals. The Leningrad codex is notable for being the oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible in Hebrew. The Aleppo codex, which also contains the Hebrew Bible, was at one point housed in a synagogue in Jerusalem, from which it was taken by Crusaders and held for ransom. After the ransom was paid, it was kept in Egypt for some time and eventually brought to Syria, where it remained for approximately six centuries before rioters burned down the synagogue where it was being kept.
Fortunately, the codex was not destroyed, though part of it was lost. It now belongs to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
The Esther Scroll and the Syriac liturgical codex are both originals containing portions of the Hebrew Bible. The Esther Scroll comes from Fez, Morocco. Made of 27 panels of goat skin sewn together, the scroll contains the book of Esther with marks that provided guidelines for synagogue cantors chanting the text.
The Syriac codex dates back to the 1570s. This antique scroll cannot be unwrapped without damaging it, but specialists were able to provide the seminary with high- resolution scans of its contents.
Eldevik and Teske said New Testament classes also visit the Rare Book Room to view facsimile editions of fourth- and fifth-century works.
Scholars aren’t the only people who use the room, however. Campus tours for prospective students, donor guests, and visiting lecturers have all made a stop in the Rare Book Room.
“For many discerning students visiting Luther Seminary, the Rare Book Room is a favorite addition to their tour, especially for those who have a particular fondness for physical books,” said Jessi LeClear Vachta ’14 M.A., director of enrollment services. “When visitors step into the room for the first time, they are in awe of Luther’s unique collection, their eyes sweeping over the antique covers reaching to the ceiling and the even older parchment, scrolls, and hand- painted pages featured on the tables.”
According to Eldevik and Teske, “By far the most frequently asked (question) is ‘What’s your oldest book?’ This prompts pulling the 1478 Mammotrectus super Bibliam from the shelf, commenting that, in the first few decades after Gutenberg, there was the desire in many cases to make printed books resemble the manuscripts their readers would have expected and been familiar with. The colorfully hand-decorated and illuminated initial page of the Mammotrectus is a delightful example of this period of transition from manuscript to print.” The name of the book, referring to “mother’s milk,” indicates that the commentary would nourish young friars.
Not all of the volumes in the Rare Book Room are serious religious texts. Visitors can discover early editions of three volumes from C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia as well as the first American edition of Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species.”
Library staff members have also hosted open houses to invite members of the public and others to enjoy what the Rare Book Room has to offer.
The events often coincide with special dates in the school’s calendar, such as Reformation Day, when Lutherans commemorate Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg.
Another open house is often scheduled during spring commencement exercises, when graduates and their families and friends have an opportunity to tour the facility.
The visits tend to have long-lasting effects on guests, Eldevik and Teske write.
“The ability to personally view artifacts contemporaneous with ground-breaking ideas, movements, and figures within Christian history creates a deeper connection to that history.
When students see Luther’s marginal notes to the text of his Bible translation or are shown his reordering of the books of the New Testament (including his disinclination to even assign numbers to the books of Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation), a more immediate sense of who Luther was and of the Reformation era in general is often the result,” they said.
“Finally, there is the feeling of wonder and delight that special collections can create in the experience of the viewer.
Thanks to Peter Watters for his assistance with this article.