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The Scarlet & Black

Burling open house displays new acquisitions from the Salisbury Collection

A 1903 edition of Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” just one of the documents from the Salisbury collection that was displayed in Burling Library. Photo by Paul Hill.

Last August, Grinnell College acquired a collection of rare books from the Salisbury House collection, and along with it, a way to experience the past in the most beautiful way possible. On Thursday, Feb. 6, Burling Library displayed some of these documents in an open house.

The documents were originally housed at Salisbury House, a museum in Des Moines built by Carl Weeks and his wife Edith in the 1920s. They had a penchant for collecting rare books. Apart from historical documents, the house holds tapestries, works of art, a statuary and even a sword collection.

Alisson Haack, the library assistant at special collections and archives, said “Choosing only 40 pieces from such an embarrassment of riches (3000 new books!) was almost impossible! We set out letters, memorandum, documents, fine press books and books with detailed illustration, only documents that are considered the treasures of the Salisbury Collection.”

“We also tried to get the broadest representation possible – so we scanned through for as many documents written by women we could find to narrow down the ration, as well as a few documents written by non-Caucasians. We really hoped to showcase the breadth of the collection, not only in terms of format and appearance but also the artists and authors.” 

The book collection includes an impressive range of materials from 1122 CE to the 1960s, including a leaf from 1122 taken from a Quran manuscript, written in Cairo, Egypt. The college is also home to the medieval “Book of Hours,” a Christian religious devotional book which is meant to be read on the different chronical hours of the day. The set consists of eight books, to be read from the time one wakes up to when he goes to bed. These books are manuscripts, handwritten with quill and ink, and illuminated with some gold leaf. The book also has three to four illustrations of biblical scenes from the medieval era, relating to references in the scripture. These scriptures are written on vellum, and are labors of love, making them invaluable to those who they were created for. 

Upon asking Christopher Jones, the special collections librarian, about his favorite pieces up on display in the exhibition, he answered, “I have so many favorite documents! It would be like picking favorite children.” After much consideration, he settled on the 12 volumes of incunabula, which are representative of the first 50 years of movable metal type. 

The physical aspects of books along with the development of printing methods like moveable type can lend insight into the developments and intellectual spirits of specific time periods. 

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