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Grasping History
Rare book display provides hands-on research opportunity

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Archivist Dick Harms - click photo to enlarge image
Calvin archivist Richard Harms sets up the rare book display which includes printed text dating as far back as 1250.

Books can seem dull in an age of e-mail, e-books and web-browsing phones. That's why a display unveiled in January at Calvin is so important. It pays tribute to the timelessness and durability of books-ideas committed to words and paper and preserved for generations.

"Wisdom of the Ages" is a display of 50 classic books many of which are first-editions dating back anywhere from 200 to 800 years. And they will not just be on display, but also will be available for use: for hands-on research, for leisurely perusal and for simple historical reflection.

The display opened January 24, 2002, and will remain until the end of June 2002.

It's all part of an innovative project by the Remnant Trust, an Indiana based educational foundation that is home to a collection of more than 400 rare volumes and manuscripts dating back to the 1200s. The Trust loans its collection to colleges and universities under one condition: that students be able to handle the collection.

De Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" - click photo to enlarge image
Democracy in America. Alexis de Tocqueville's classic study of American institutions, the first serious study of the effects of democracy.

So, visitors to Calvin will be able to see and touch such books as: a 1475 edition of Aquinas' Summa Theologiae, a 1610 edition of Augustine's Citie of God, a 1787 first pamphlet printing of the U.S. Constitution, the first public printing in 1862 of the Emancipation Proclamation, a 1651 edition of Leviathan by Hobbes, the first printing in 1806 in America of the Koran, Lincoln's Gettsyburg Address from 1863, an 1838 edition of Tocqueville's Democracy in America and a 1792 first edition of Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women as well as leaves from four early Bibles, including one from 1250.

President Gaylen Byker landed the collection for Calvin, having heard about it from several colleagues at other universities and colleges. He had a chance to preview the books prior to their arrival at Calvin. He says the experience is a special one.

"This is a terrific opportunity," he says. "When you hold these old, first-edition works in your hands it gives you a sense of perspective and history that is very powerful."

Byker says the collection coming to Calvin is stunning for its breadth and depth.

Summa Theologiae, for example, is one of only three known copies of this edition in the world. One is in the British Museum in London and the other in the Newberry in Chicago. This is the most perfect of the three. A Vindication of the Rights of Women is considered a classic work on freedom, equality and education. It caused an outcry when it was published and is hailed as a cornerstone of feminism. Leviathan had a peculiar relevance for the American Revolutionaries. Hobbes has a fundamentally pessimistic view of human nature, which had a powerful influence on the framers of the Constitution.

Remnant Trust president Kris Bex believes it is important for students and others to read these great works about freedom, liberty and democracy. "We're trying to show people," he says, "that the idea of liberty didn't suddenly appear 200 years ago with the Founding Fathers. It's a great experiment over the centuries going back to Aristotle and others."

The Remnant Trust built its rare collection both by working with book dealers around the globe and by traveling to estate sales, auctions, book fairs and even flea markets.

Calvin archivist Richard Harms set up the books for display and believes this to be a great opportunity for the Calvin community.

"It's exciting to be able to provide patrons the opportunity to see and use these first and early editions," he says. "Because of their importance and value, using such sources directly is not easy, but in this case the titles are coming to us with the expectation that they be used."

The books arrived at Calvin on December 21 and an opening celebration occurred January 24 in the Calvin Archives. The display will be packed away again at the end of June.

Heritage Hall
The archives of Calvin College and the Christian Reformed Church

The Remnant Trust

H. Henry Meeter Center
One of the world's finest collections of books by and about John Calvin

Calvin owns a rare Dutch Bible

Bult discovers rare book
1545 translation of Calvin's Genevan catechism

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