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Five Faves - Unique Books

Fantastic finds in the A.M. Todd Rare Book Room
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Medieval Psalter

© 2021 Encore Publications/Brian Powers

The A.M. Todd Rare Book Room, tucked away on the third floor of Kalamazoo College’s Upjohn Library Commons, holds more than 3,000 unique books and manuscripts. The term “rare” often includes first editions, signed copies, limited editions and antique books with intrinsic historical value. The room itself is named for Albert May Todd, known locally for his mint extract company, his philanthropy, his worldwide travels and his collection of art and literature. After his death in 1931, a portion of his collection was given to Kalamazoo College. Thanks to the generosity of his children, grandchildren and numerous additional donors, the collection has continued to grow since the room’s opening in 1957. Today the A.M. Todd Rare Book Room is available to anyone who would like to visit its three yearly exhibits or simply stop by to view something interesting, like these five favorites of mine:

Medieval Psalter

The oldest book in the Rare Book Room is a small illuminated manuscript dating to approximately the 13th or 14th century. The manuscript is a collection of the psalms, called a psalter. Some of the book’s pages contain initials and decorations of gold leaf, also called illuminations. The manuscript was written in Latin on vellum, or calf skin, and likely belonged to a French monastery. At one point in its long history the manuscript belonged to an English nobleman. By the 20th century the book had traveled to America, where it was in the possession of a New York artist.

This book demonstrates the artistry and craftsmanship that went into even small books in the Middle Ages. The tears and marks on the pages, the bookplates of the previous owners, the illuminations, mistakes, notes, scribbles and even the scribe’s handwriting are all part of the book’s long history, providing a bridge between the scribe’s time and our own.

Poeticon Astronomicon

During the Middle Ages, books were copied by hand. In the mid-15th century, Johannes Gutenberg introduced the printing press to Europe, providing a way to quickly disseminate information among the population. Books printed before 1501, in the infancy of printing, are known as incunabula, or incunables. The Latin word translates to “cradle” or “swaddling clothes.” German printer Erhard Ratdolt printed this volume in Venice in 1485. The book has beautiful, though scientifically inaccurate, woodcut illustrations of constellations, meant to complement the tales attributed to the Roman author Hyginius.

New Testament Miniature

The smallest of the Rare Book Room’s miniature books is roughly the size of a penny. Books that are three inches or less in height, width and thickness are typically considered miniature. A miniature book this small is almost impossible to read even with the help of a magnifying glass and so has no practical use. Miniature books, however, take a great deal of skill to create and often provide a challenge to the crafters. At the time this book was printed, miniature books were sometimes made by photoengraving or lithography. This tiny copy of the New Testament, published in 1894, was bound by renowned bookbinder Joseph William Zaehnsdorf, who gave this particular copy to A.M. Todd’s wife, Augusta. According to the story passed down with the book, copies were also given to Queen Mary and Queen Alexandra of England.

The Works of Thomas Gray

This two-volume set, with the subtitle Containing His Poems and Correspondence, with Memoirs of His Life and Writings, contains beautiful examples of vanishing fore-edge paintings. At first glance the edges of the book look only gilded, but when the pages are fanned downward, a painting is revealed across the fanned fore-edge of the book. Fore-edge painting dates as far back as the Middle Ages but was particularly popular from the late 17th century onward. It has rarely been practiced since the late 19th century.

The author of these volumes was an English poet who died in 1771. These editions of his work were published in 1825. The painting on the first volume shows the Horse Guards Parade in London, and the second volume also portrays the London location of Westminster Abbey. Fore-edge paintings serve as an excellent reminder that books can also be works of art.

Cato Major, or, A Treatise on Old Age

At first glance, this work of classical literature by the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero doesn’t seem much different from other books printed during the 18th century. It has a simple brown leather cover with minimal ornamentation. It is, however, unique for a few reasons. The edition was printed and sold by Benjamin Franklin in 1744 at his press in Philadelphia. In his note to the reader, Franklin claimed it was the first American translation of a Latin classic. He hoped it would be followed by many more. This particular copy was the second issue off the press and was signed by the translator James Logan, who had served as the 14th mayor of Philadelphia.

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About the Author

Mallory Heslinger is the curator for the A.M. Todd Rare Book Room at Kalamazoo College. She creates three rare book exhibits held every year, acquires new materials and welcomes both classes and individuals to view the collection. Mallory holds a master’s degree in medieval studies from Western Michigan University, where she worked in Special Collections, and a master’s degree in library science from Wayne State University, where she studied academic libraries and conservation. She also works as a reference and instruction librarian for Kalamazoo Valley Community College.