Our Lady of Books

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

In the stock-splitting era of dot-com bookmarts, the search for a Breeches Bible--a 1560 edition--or an original Eric Gill printing of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is a fine prognosticator. The typical response from one of the big-box superstores like Amazon.com is that its search engines found no match, hence these books simply don't exist. But indeed they do, if only in rarefied corners of the world, where they are tended to with "hawk-eyed vigilance," at least according to Sister Margery Smith, the local guardian of rare books at the College of St. Catherine's library in St. Paul.

Only those with an acute sense of direction (or the ability to ask) can mosey beyond the front desk and line of computers, head down the stairs, skip the central collection of books, pass through a few unmarked doors and find the hallowed hallway of tiled, canary-yellow walls. On the far end of the corridor, adjacent to the loading dock and beyond classrooms, offices, and restrooms, exists 120--the Rare Book Room.

At first glance the place resembles the Marx Brothers' stateroom in A Night at the Opera, each volume squeezed onto one of the multitude of towering shelves, with stowaways and stewards seemingly popping out of nowhere.

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

And the aroma--the time-laden musk of antiquated paper! A mere scan of the overburdened stacks reveals an Indian Palm Book, a Book of Hours formerly belonging to 19th-century art critic John Ruskin, an engraved silver and mother-of-pearl prayer book, a leather Hebrew scroll with wooden spine, an original Aldus Catullus from 15th-century Venice (complete with dolphin and anchor insignia), full sets of signed Willa Cathers and Edna St. Vincent Millays, and original prints from Stanley Morison, Eric Gill, and Tennyson Doré.

On this particular day, William Myers, professor of philosophy at St. Catherine's and co-curator of the current "Book as Art" exhibit, has found his way to visit Smith and catalog the final choices for the show. According to Myers, the purpose of the exhibit, which runs through the end of the month, is "to look primarily at the aesthetic of the book, rather than the book as a means of sharing ideas or communication." Smith seems slightly nervous, much like a mother lending her mint 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO to a newly licensed teenager. Myers, however, is no reckless novice; in his free time, in addition to collecting books, he carves fonts into wood to print his own volumes. He treats each folio with the utmost respect.

As he pulls out a 1481 Florence printing of St. Ephrem's Incunable, he obviously has to control his drool reflex. Smith, who seems able to quip an anecdote for each text in the room, says that because his sermons were so powerful, "in his time, Ephrem was known as the 'harp of the holy ghost.'" She later mentions that she recently listed the Ephrem book on something called the Ex-Libris List (exlibris@library.berkeley.edu)--a Berkeley-based clearinghouse that caters to book dealers, special collections librarians, and rare-book collectors). And, Smith says, "have the answers ever been coming back in! The Vatican library answered, no less." Bettina Wagner, a librarian at the Bavarian Staatsbibliothek in Munich, wrote that only 50 places in the world have the book--and they are mostly small Italian monasteries. Duke University is the only other North American institution that houses a copy.

Given her duties as the Rare Book Room watchdog, the college's official archivist, a professor of English literature, and a Sister of St. Joseph, Smith has very few hats left to don. Yet when she speaks about these treasured books she seems to have the energy of a woman half her age, and the knowledge of a woman twice it. (As for her exact age, Smith answers simply, "I'm as old as my tongue, and a little older than my teeth.") She graduated from St. Catherine's in 1949, and received her doctorate in English literature from the University of Chicago in 1970. She has been stationed at St. Kate's ever since.

The archives Smith watches over, located across the hall from the rare book trove, contain a slew of impressive artifacts: Archbishop John Ireland's silver-headed walking stick; Pope Leo XIII's velvet slippers; an antique Greek amphora from the seabed of the Mediterranean, and a pre-Christian Japanese Haniwa pottery figure. Even with such treasures adorning this basement, Smith confesses that the real reason she accepted the archivist post was "to get at the Rare Book Room."

In 1960, when the library was built, the room was designed to house the Charlotte Hill Slade Collection, donated by her daughter, Georgianna Reny, who--any Minnesota history buff will inform you--was the granddaughter of James J. Hill. Since then every square inch and then some has been converted to the service of antiquarian texts. The Muellerleile Collection, courtesy of the former head of North Central Publishing Co. in St. Paul, takes up a good share of the space. The thousand-plus volumes detail a history of printing and are devoted to eloquent technical descriptions of the printing process through the ages. The Sawyer Collection (classic children's novels, by C.S. Lewis, L. Frank Baum, Lewis Carroll, and others), the Sister Antonia McHugh Collection (signed novels of visiting authors collected by Smith's predecessor), the Niemeyer Collection (art books), and the Mitsch Collection (books and artifacts from East Asia) have all been added since 1960. The total number of volumes under Sister Smith's care? Six thousand, give or take a hymnal.

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.

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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