By Adam King
To the untrained eye, the frayed, yellowed bit of parchment meant nothing. But Eric Johnson was downright giddy. He knew this fragment had a story to tell and it would be a superb addition to the University Libraries’ Rare Books and Manuscripts Collection.
As a curator, it is Johnson’s job to acquire items that enhance Ohio State’s pedagogy and research. On Oct. 23 in the Thompson Library, Johnson proudly displayed a small portion of what he and his colleagues acquired over the past academic year.
Even that small selection ran the literary gamut, including racy dime store novelettes, Irish political treatises, art books, hand-drawn Ohio visitors’ guides, medieval manuscripts and examples of American fiction from the past 200 years.
The most nondescript item turned out to be the rarest of the bunch and was Johnson’s favorite. The page fragment, circa 1075, was an example of Beneventan writing, in this case a copy of St. Augustine’s Tractates on the Gospel of John. The script was regional to portions of Italy and what was known as Dalmatia (now Croatia).
“I saw this in May at a conference and immediately said, ‘I must have this,’” Johnson said. “The reason is Ohio State is particularly active in the teaching of paleography, or the study of historic scripts. Beneventan is a particularly rare script to find on the market today. There’s just not a lot of it that’s out there. It’s been bought up or not a lot of it survives.”
When showing examples of Beneventan writing, faculty have had to rely on digital facsimiles or photographs, “and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Johnson said. “But it’s awfully nice to have a genuine example to show the students because you can see the grain of the parchment and the way the ink has skittered across the page because of the way the scribe has drawn his quill across it.”
Part of curating is acquiring items that serve a need. But it also is conceptualizing how items could be used and who would benefit from them — students, professors, visiting academics and scholars around the world. As a premier public research institution, Johnson said it behooves Ohio State to round out its already strong collections.
The ideal way, of course, is to have generous donors willing to part with their collections. Johnson said Ohio State has benefited from such relationships with many alumni and friends, but having an acquisitions budget allows Ohio State to fill in any gaps and pursue items that make sense for the institution.
For example, Ohio State has one of the most complete collections of Irish literature, some of which is on display in Thompson Library through Jan. 6 in the showcase “Of What is Past, or Passing or to Come: The Irish Literary Renaissance.” Some of the items, including the 11th printing of Ulysses by James Joyce, were secured this year.
The 11th printing of Ulysses is not rare — that is reserved for the first edition that Ohio State also owns — but it adds to the completeness of the collection. And an institution serious about maintaining a robust collection must have all the editions, simply because Joyce would rewrite portions of each edition after it was proofed and send those changes directly to the printer.
Geoffrey Smith, head of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, said acquisitions also are driven by faculty or student requests — within reason.
“We try to honor them,” he said. “But if someone asked, ‘Could you get a Gutenberg bible?’ Well, do you have a spare $20 million lying around? Some things we just can’t honor, not because we don’t want to but because we don’t have the means to do it.
“Much of our collection, if we had to get these things today, we just couldn’t get them. The first Ulysses editions we own, they’re probably $75,000 to $100,000 apiece. We would have to go to administration and beg for extra money and convince them buying one book — instead of buying scores of other books for that amount — is worth it, and I’m not sure we could make a strong case.”
Once items are acquired, however, the next step is figuring out how to use them. Social media has become an increasingly successful conduit, said Johnson, who maintains a blog, Facebook page and Twitter account.
Johnson wrote about an early mathematical treatise on the Rare Books and Manuscripts’ Facebook page, and an Australian researcher, intrigued by the post, asked if Ohio State could digitize a few pages for him. The result was a published article on Euclidian geometry with a significant portion based upon Ohio State’s treatise.
Through social media, Johnson said he has seen an increase in reference requests and queries for items as well as direct contacts from donors and dealers.
“We have to publicize and advertise our items,” Johnson said. “There is no point in acquiring and preserving these things if nobody is going to use them.”
Like most similar manuscripts, it includes charts that show preachers how to access the Gospel commentaries and construct sermons for different times of year. But there also are 21 sample sermons — unknown, unedited and unidentified — and three extremely rare devotional/moral treatises on the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and the destruction of Jerusalem. The first two treatises are the only known existing examples, adding to the manuscript’s uniqueness.
Kröpffel also identifies himself in the manuscript, which medieval scribes rarely did. That alone creates its own research trail, an opportunity to discover who Kröpffel was and if manuscripts in other collections can be linked to him.
W ooden tally sticks were used for record keeping in England throughout the Middle Ages, with this stick accounting for a three-shilling, two-pence land transaction (three large notches to go with two small notches) that took place sometime in Kent between 1279 and 1283. The date is known because one of the parties was John Bradfield, bishop of Rochester during that period. The writing was duplicated on the back and the stick was then split in half so each party would have a record.
It is possible Ohio State owns one of the only tally sticks in North America, and, of all places, it was discovered on eBay. There were hundreds of thousands of tally sticks until the majority was lost in the 1834 fire at the Houses of Parliament.
Though the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library generally stays away from eBay purchases because they are often sketchy, curator Eric Johnson was able to trace the stick cleanly to the estate of Thomas Phillips, the 19th century’s biggest manuscript collector. Johnson purchased the stick from a reputable dealer who won the eBay auction and plans to showcase the stick during the medieval manuscripts course he co-teaches.