Rare books benefit from rare talent

Sept. 26, 2007

By Gary D. Myers

     NEW ORLEANS--For nearly four months last spring, Chicago-based rare books expert Ellen Middlebrook Herron combed through the rare books collection at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary's John T. Christian Library.

Herron discovered and cataloged a number of important early books and Bibles in the NOBTS library, including several 15th-century works from the earliest days of the printing press.

But in many ways, Herron's expertise is as rare as the books she investigates. These skills include the ability to read Latin and French as well as decipher titles and phrases in languages such as Greek, Hebrew, Italian and Spanish. She also has the uncanny talent for dating handwriting by century. Extensive knowledge of binding procedures and early book construction techniques are other tools Herron uses to identify and date books.

Her training and experience with ancient documents led to Herron's involvement with two important collections -– the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Scriptorium: Center for Christian Antiquity.

During a year of study at Oxford University following her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan, Herron developed an interest in rare documents and books. Oxford's tutorial instruction model played a key role in her training and development as a rare book curator. As Herron studied English and Irish history at Oxford, her tutor introduced her to illuminated manuscripts and helped her develop the skills she uses today.

From that moment, Herron says she has been "hooked" on rare documents and books.

She returned to the United States in 1996 and earned a master of arts in medieval history at Western Michigan University. While studying there, Herron also began working as a volunteer curator at the Scriptorium which was located in Grand Haven, Mich., at the time.

The Scriptorium, also known as the Van Kampen Collection, is an important collection of rare Bibles and theological works worth an estimated $20 million. The privately held collection formerly was owned by Robert and Judith Van Kampen.

When Herron began working at the Scriptorium, the large collection was not cataloged. As she worked to organize and catalog it, Herron received several promotions -– first to assistant curator and later to curator. When the owner of the collection died in 2000, the center in Michigan was closed and the books were prepared for a move to Orlando, Fla., in 2002.

Herron then moved to Dallas where she served as curator of special collections at Southern Methodist University's Bridwell Library. The extensive theological library features a fine selection of rare books and Bibles.

While working at SMU, Herron received the offer of a lifetime. She was asked to curate the U.S. stops for the traveling Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit sponsored by the Israel Antiquities Authority. Herron served in that role from 2001-05.

In preparation for the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit's Mobile, Ala., stop, Herron traveled to New Orleans Seminary to select books to show the history of biblical translation after the time of the scrolls. When Herron's Dead Sea Scrolls curatorship was finished, NOBTS asked her to catalog its rare book collection.

The process that Herron used to catalog the NOBTS collection is the same for any uncataloged collection -– one book at a time.

"The books were just on shelves in no particular order," Herron said. Day by day Herron pulled down the next book on the shelf, opened it and began the effort to determine what it is and when it was printed.

Much of the dating of rare books involves recognizing their bindings, discovering previous owners, determining the historical significance of the work and identifying handwriting by century.

Discovering the basic information about a volume can be relatively easy if the book has a title page. But many early books do not.

After this initial identification, Herron searches the Internet for records of other existing copies. She scours the Library of Congress website and other online resources for more information.

"Sometimes it's like looking for a needle in a haystack," she said. "But a lot of the time, with the Internet, it's relatively easy to find other copies."

Next, Herron thoroughly exams the book and compares it to descriptions of other known copies from the same printing to determine what makes an individual copy unique, such as handwritten notes, decorations or even famous past owners. The NOBTS collection, for example, has a fine example of this type of uniqueness -– a Bible with a hand-written genealogy of Charles H. Spurgeon's family.

Then the final step in the process at NOBTS involves entering the book's information in the seminary’s Horizon catalog system. The entry includes a brief description of the book, its binding and condition, with Herron assigning a catalog number unique to the NOBTS library.

Herron finished the initial NOBTS cataloging project during the last week of May. Library officials at NOBTS hope to bring her back again for another short-term project in the future.

Until then, Herron will continue to put her skills to work, searching through other rare book collections, one book at a time.

--30—

Ellen Herron welcomes inquires about her work. She may be reached at 708-228-7675 or ellen@chicagobynight.org.

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