On August 30, 2009, at the dedication ceremony for the newly-constructed William H. Hannon Library building, Cardinal Roger Mahony presented the library with a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible. The gift was a complete surprise to everyone at the library, and I, as the library’s rare book cataloger, nearly fainted when I heard that it was going to be coming across my desk.
So, what’s so amazing about this piece of paper that it makes rare book librarians go weak at the knees?
The Gutenberg Bible (named for the inventor of the printing press, Johann Gutenberg) was the first book ever printed using movable type. Prior to Gutenberg’s invention, a single book could take months to copy out by hand, and was so costly that only the extremely wealthy could afford it. With printing, many identical copies of a book could be printed quickly from a single setting of type. Because books could be produced more cheaply, Gutenberg’s invention paved the way for an increase in literacy rates and enabled libraries to accumulate collections of unprecedented size. For the first time in history, scholars in different cities could compare identical copies of a text.
Even though LMU has only one leaf from this historic book, it’s still one of the treasures of our collection. We don’t know for certain how many copies of the bible Gutenberg originally produced, but scholars’ best guess is that there were around 180 copies, of which only 48 copies are known to have survived into the 21st century, and fewer than half of those are complete.
Since the start of the Fall semester, nearly every class or tour group that’s visited Archives & Special Collections has asked to see it, and dozens of individual visitors have come to spend some quality time with this piece of history. One of the questions that these visitors often ask us is why the leaf isn’t out on permanent display. Currently, it is available upon request in the Department of Archives & Special Collections reading room, the same as any of our rare books or artifacts. Visitors are welcome to spend as much time as they want with the leaf—to touch it and find out what 15th century paper feels like, to look at the colors as closely as they want, or to read the essay that was bound in alongside the leaf. If the leaf were locked inside a display case, it wouldn’t be any more available than it is now (our gallery’s hours are the same as those of the reading room), but nobody would be able to touch the leaf or look at it up close. You wouldn’t even be able to see both sides of the page!
Of course, there’s one more reason why we don’t just leave the Gutenberg Bible leaf out on permanent display. Every time a rare book is removed from its dark, climate-controlled vault, it deteriorates just a little. If we were to leave it out 24 hours a day, exposed to even dim lighting, the colors would soon begin to fade, and the paper that’s still flexible and white even after 550+ years, would soon become brown and brittle. By leaving it in the vault and only bringing it out whenever someone asks for it, we’re able to offer our visitors the most contact with this historic artifact while making sure that it will still be around for the next 550 years.
So, how can you come and see this piece of the Gutenberg Bible for yourself? Simply come to the Department of Archives & Special Collections, located on level 3 of the William H. Hannon Library. We’d appreciate it if you phoned or emailed us ahead of time. We’ll ask you to read our Reading Room Rules, fill out a short registration form, and show us some photo ID (your OneCard is fine). You’ll fill out a request slip for the leaf, and we’ll bring it to one of our researcher tables for you to peruse at your leisure.
To learn more about the Gutenberg Bible and peruse not one, but two complete copies, check out this site created by the British Library: http://www.bl.uk/treasures/gutenberg/homepage.html.