University’s rare book collection held deep underground

One of the nation’s most unique collections of rare books is preserved and available on campus.

Library curator Tim Johnson points out archived books Tuesday in the Elmer L. Andersen Library. Comprised of nearly 3 million volumes, the library is home to one of the world's foremost rare book collections.

Library curator Tim Johnson points out archived books Tuesday in the Elmer L. Andersen Library. Comprised of nearly 3 million volumes, the library is home to one of the world’s foremost rare book collections.

Luke Feuerherm

When searching for rare art on campus, most turn to the aesthetic grandeur of the East BankâÄôs Weisman Art Museum. However, some of the University of MinnesotaâÄôs rarest art lies buried beneath 90 feet of shale and limestone across the Mississippi River. Elmer L. Andersen Library is home to one of the worldâÄôs foremost rare book collections, containing 120 special collections and additional archives that make up nearly 3 million volumes in total, including AndersenâÄôs vast personal collection. âÄúOur Sherlock Holmes collection is one of the largest, if not the largest in the world,âÄù said Kris Kiesling, director of archives and special collections at the University libraries. The volumes are held in two main caverns that protect them from four major threats: temperature, humidity, dust and light. This protection includes filtered ventilation, low-flow fire sprinklers, pressurized halls and chemical detectors used to discern fires before they happen. While these intricate caverns are closed to the general public, their rare treasures are not. Reading rooms are available during library hours where library workers access the rare collections to retrieve works upon request. âÄúThereâÄôs just something that happens to you when you hold a book thatâÄôs over 500 years old,âÄù library curator Tim Johnson said. The University library system is North AmericaâÄôs 15th largest research library and assists the University in its status as a research university. âÄúThereâÄôs just no way to get across its value in any type of virtual mode. It has an artistic value; it has a tactile value,âÄù said graduate instructor Kevin Mummey, who recently took his students to the library to view 3,000-year-old stone tablets. âÄúOur hope is that the collections support the research our students do,âÄôâÄù Johnson said. The collection stands as a valuable supply of primary sources on campus. âÄúWe get a lot of students using the collection in a variety of ways. We probably see between 800 and 1,000 students in the course of an academic year, either through class presentations or working on papers or projects using the collection,âÄù said Marguerite Ragnow , library resources advisor for graduate students. In addition to research, the libraryâÄôs collection also stands as a preservation of the art of literature. The value of the rare books extends beyond simply information. âÄúItâÄôs not just the text in the book but the creator and the art,âÄù said Johnson. His favorite pieces in the collection include âÄúThe Kelmscott Chaucer,âÄù regarded by some as the most beautiful book in the world, and a Sherlock Holmes novel that once belonged to Tsaritsa Alexandra of Russia. The thick stone that encases the rows of rare literature is in place to protect them from their environment, not shield them from the public, for which they are open to daily upon request.