Our Lady of Books

A treasure trove of antiquarian books, and the nun who keeps them from harm's way

As she weaves her way through the labyrinth of shelves, Smith admits, with a twinge of guilt in her voice, that some of the books "should not be stacked on top of each other, because it will ruin the binding." Because the space is so crammed, the less valuable books in the collection suffer. But as she circles the stacks, it is evident that book purists needn't worry--the signed Trollopes, the 1538 Froben-printed Erasmus, the first-edition Dickens (illustrated by Boz and Crookshank), and the 1911 Sisters of the Visitation, an extremely rare hand-painted prayer book given to Archbishop Ireland, have been rebound or protected in handmade slipcases. All this on the Special Collection's $1,200 annual budget--now that, even the pious might agree, is a miracle.

Pull out a Cicero and ask Smith about it. She'd tell you that a few months ago a classics scholar at UCLA was looking for a missive from a two-volume collection of Cicero's sermons and letters published in 1531. In his first search, he found two complete copies, at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. He tried one more search, and--lo and behold--he turned up a third set, in St. Paul.

Heaven can wait: Paradise is in the pages for Sister Margery Smith
Diana Watters
Heaven can wait: Paradise is in the pages for Sister Margery Smith

When Smith offered to make copies of the letter and fax them to the man, she recalls, "He must have been doing cartwheels, and I thought he was on some sort of drug!" As for the value of the Cicero volumes, which are also included in the "Book as Art" exhibit, Smith gives her usual response: "Irreplaceable."

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