Rare Books

Bill Claspy opening the cover of a rare book in the Hatch Reading Room

Our rare book collection spans from medieval manuscript volumes to fine press books from the 20th century, and diverse topics from science and technology to culture and literature.

The History of the Book collection contains a variety of materials: a cuneiform tablet, fragments of papyri, medieval manuscripts, and incunabula and books from such early printing houses as Aldus Manutius, Elzevier and Plantin. Two fine examples of a manuscript and an early printed book are an illuminated Book of Hours and the Nuremberg Chronicle. Books from private and fine press publishers such as Strawberry Hill, Kelmscott, Doves, Roycrofters, Nonesuch, Hogarth, Cuala, Black Sun and Bits are also to be found in the collection.

Papyrus from the Oxyrhynchus and Hibeh Sites

Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve University) acquired the eleven papyrus manuscripts in 1906/1907 from the Egypt Exploration Fund. After a period of excavations and discoveries under the direction of Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt around the turn of the century, selected universities were given small collections for study and research.

None of our fragments are "new classics," or documents leading to great discoveries regarding the life of the times on which they were written. They are valuable chiefly as examples of writing in their respective periods. Hibeh Nos. 147, 123, 108, and 59 are among the oldest Greek manuscripts extant (the oldest dates from 270 B.C.). Oxyrhynchus 737, as an example of Latin writing in manuscripts, is probably the second in age only to a papyrus in the Vienna library of the date 17-14 B.C.

The descriptions are paraphrased from "Western Reserve Papyri" by Henry B. Van Hoesen, Western Reserve Literary Bulletin v.16 #4, May 1913.

Puppet Plays from the Wilhelm Scherer Collection

The puppet plays are little booklets of play scripts, in manuscript, from the repertoires of German puppeteers in use during the 19th century. It is unusual that these scripts have survived considering the hard use they must have endured as the puppeteers toured throughout the country giving performances. The important fact of their survival is that scholars can examine these scripts and discover new information about the German theater during that period of time.

These puppet plays, as well as over 7,500 volumes from Wilhelm Scherer's library, are in the Special Collections Research Center, Kelvin Smith Library, Case Western Reserve University. The Wilhelm Scherer Collection was purchased in Berlin, Germany, in January 1887, by Professor Arthur H. Palmer, then on the faculty of Western Reserve University. As a former student of Dr. Scherer, Palmer was well aware of the importance of his personal library. Professor Palmer raised funds from fellow Clevelanders and traveled to Berlin to purchase the 12,000 volumes from Scherer's widow after his untimely death at the age of 45.

Wilhelm Scherer, Professor of German Philology at the University of Berlin, was a prominent scholar, who wrote influential works on the history of German literature, contributing to scholarship in Teutonic folklore, literature, history, and philology. His collection contained many first editions of the foremost German authors as well as significant periodicals and the six puppet plays here on exhibit.

The Otto F. Ege Collection

Original Leaves from Famous Books: Nine Centuries, 1122 A.D.-1923 A.D.

Otto F. Ege (1888-1951) was the Dean of Education at the Cleveland Institute of Art and Lecturer on the History of the Book at the School of Library Science, Western Reserve University, now Case Western Reserve University. During his early teaching years, he learned of the art of fine printing and became passionate about its history and that of early manuscripts. His collection of manuscript leaves, some of which are available in the Special Collections Research Center at Case Western Reserve University, became well known all over the country. The collection includes leaves from famous books written between 1122 A.D. - 1923 A.D. Among the examples are Mohammad's The Koran Manuscript, Livy's The History of Rome, and Erasmus' Adages.

Find examples in Digital Case.

Fifty Original Leaves from Medieval Manuscripts, Western Europe, XII-XVI century

These fifty manuscript leaves were selected to illustrate the art of the manuscript during the period of its greatest development and influence. They have been taken from books written in various European scriptoria by Benedictine, Franciscan, Carthusian, Dominican, and other orders of monks. Many are enriched with handsome borders, initial letters, and line-endings rendered in color, and twenty-five of them are illuminated with burnished gold or silver. The texts include the Bible, various church service books, the writings of the Church Fathers, and some of the classics.

Changes in book hands from the revived Carolingian to the angular and round gothic, the bâtarde, and humanistic style of writing are illustrated. Tools, materials, and their use and preparation are described, and some methods of dating and allocating the provenance of the book from which the leaf was taken are pointed out on the label attached to each of the leaves.

The leaves are available in the Otto F. Ege Collections in Digital Case, presented with the written permission of the Elizabeth Ege Freudenheim Estate.

Flemish Book of Hours

Ink, tempera, and gold on vellum
Flanders, Ghent, ca. 1450-60 

The Case Western Reserve University Book of Hours comprises 132 folios with a Ghent calendar in Flemish and written in black and red inks. The feast day of St. Bavo, patron saint of Ghent, is noted in red for October 1st. The remainder of the manuscript appears in Latin. A sequentiae of the Gospels follows the calendar with the Obsecro te, domina, a special prayer to the Virgin. At the heart of the manuscript is the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, more commonly called the Hours of the Virgin. This is a standard series of prayers, psalms, lessons, antiphons, responses, and hymns intended for recitation by the owner at set intervals. In 14th and 15th-century books of hours, the texts of the Hours of the Virgin typically feature minor local variations according to the diocese of their intended use. The Case Western Reserve University hours adheres to the Use of Rome, which is standard for 15th-century Flemish books of hours. This is followed by a Litany of the Saints. The primary focus of the books decoration is four large decorated initials within the Hours of the Virgin. These initials are illuminated in a palette of deep blues, reds, pinks, and orange with burnished gold leaf and in-filled with a scrolling ivy-leaf motif. The texts are surrounded by bar borders and the margins with delicate oak-leaf patterns occasionally interspersed with fruit or flowers. The Case Western Reserve University book of hours was undoubtedly made for a Ghent patron for use in that city. However, the style and palette of the manuscripts illumination do not preclude it being made in northeastern France, perhaps Amiens, for its Flemish patron.

--Stephen Fliegel
Associate Curator of Medieval Art
Cleveland Museum of Art

Some of the outstanding literature collections include the Wilhelm Scherer collection of German literature with first editions of German authors and early periodicals such as Der Deutsche Merkur, the Haskell collection of illustrated Victorian literature with books illustrated by Cruikshank, Browne, Rackham and Tenniel, and the Bailey collection of titles by Henry David Thoreau with first editions. Collections of major authors of English, French, Spanish and American literature include titles from the 16th through the 21st centuries such as England’s ParnassusÉmileFaustLeaves of GrassCigarrales de Toledo and The Old Man and the Sea.

In the History of Science collection, one will find early editions of major works such as De Fabrica by Vesalius and Opticks by Newton. Materials on the History of Technology can be found in the personal papers and scientific records of the Cleveland firms of Warner and Swasey and Charles F. Brush. In addition, the collections contain important early German, French, English and American journals. The Natural History collection includes 220 plates of Audubon’s Birds of America, Catesby’s The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands and Travels of Lewis and Clark. Explore our finding aids for History of Science and Technology related manuscript collections.

Collections of local interest include first editions by Hart Crane, black writers Charles Chesnutt, and Langston Hughes, and books from the personal library of Henry Adams with a presentation copy of Mont Saint Michel and Chartres. In addition, Special Collections contains 80% of the books from the original collection of the Western Reserve College library of 1850, which were used to educate the doctors, lawyers, and theologians of the Western Reserve. Local interest items in Special Collections have been the subject of web pages providing more contextual information about their subject areas such as the Rabbi Daniel Jeremy Silver Collection and the Cleveland Play House Collection.