The Amazing Lily Library

I mentioned my visit to the Lilly Library in conjunction with the From Gillette to Brett Sherlock Holmes conference, and how amazing it was. Today I’ll tell you exactly why it was amazing.

First, a bit on the Lilly Library itself. Lilly Pharmaceuticals is of course a household name (you’ve heard of Prozac, right? Or Cialis?), and the Lillys have traditionally been generous. Josiah K. Lilly was a collector of stamps, coins, rare books, and more. In the late 1950s he donated more than 20,000 books and 17,000 manuscripts to the university, which became the foundation for what is now a major rare book and manuscript library.

Inverted Jenny

Inverted Jenny (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I took notes because my brain couldn’t retain all the fascinating facts being explained. J.K. Lilly’s stamp collection was so large and so significant, at 77,000 pieces, that since its breaking up and sale, there’s not a major collection in the world which does not contain Lilly stamps. To give you an idea of the caliber of the collection… You’ve probably heard of the Inverted Jenny, the 1918 stamp on which the plane was printed upside down? Only 100 of these erroneous stamps were recovered and they are among the most prized. Mr. Lilly had a corner block of four.

(I don’t know if these were originally from the Lilly collection or not, but I found that in 2005 a block of four inverted Jennys was sold for $2.7 million.)

So this new library needed a curator, and it was David A. Randall. I think I would have liked Mr. Randall, after hearing this story about him. First, a reminder, in case you haven’t reviewed the Holmes canon lately:

Yes, I have been guilty of several monographs. They are all upon technical
subjects. Here, for example, is one ‘Upon the Distinction Between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccos.’ In it I enumerate a hundred and forty forms of cigar, cigarette, and pipe tobacco, with coloured plates illustrating the difference in the ash.

— “The Sign of Four,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

When he was head of Scribner’s rare book department (1935-1956), Randall included in the catalog a reference to Holmes’ utterly fictitious Upon the Distinction Between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccos — not only the original work, but an enlarged second edition! All was well and funny until a tobacco tycoon, who collected books upon the subject, attempted to order both the second edition and ask that the rarer first edition be found for him.

13th c. Italian choral mass, illuminated. Amazing.

13th c. Italian choral mass, illuminated. Amazing.

Randall then set about completing Lilly’s original collection goals as well as adding other significant works to the library. And now it’s a truly astounding collection. The library reports research-level collections in over fifty subject areas, with more than 400,000 rare books and 6.5 million manuscript pages, but here’s just a list of highlights I saw or know about (check the gallery below for photos of many of these and of other items):

  • a 1477 first edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (of only a dozen extant copies)
  • a 1493 letter in Latin by Christopher Columbus describing the New World
  • a first edition of Tamerlane by Edgar Allan Poe, which doesn’t even include Poe’s name because he was unknown
  • a Shakespeare first folio
  • a first edition of Huckleberry Finn
  • a first edition of Pilgrim’s Progress (of only 11-12 extant copies)
  • a 1535 Coverdale Bible, the first English-language edition of the Bible
  • a Gutenberg Bible New Testament
  • a 1776 Declaration of Independence (of only 26 extant copies)
  • George Washington’s letter accepting the first US presidency
  • many manuscripts by Ian Fleming for his James Bond series
  • Orson Welles’ papers and collection
  • John Ford’s papers and collection
  • the Slocum puzzle collection: 30,000 mechanical puzzles requiring the world’s only full-time puzzle curator

One could tell, visiting with the Sherlock Holmes conference, that one was in good company. When we were viewing the books and a librarian described someone picking up the Tamerlane by the front cover alone, the entire room gasped aloud. Yes, we respect books around here!

And on that note, it’s curious how these old books, printed on acid-free paper, are in such splendid condition (one man commented that the Huckleberry Finn looked as if it had been published the week before, and even the centuries-old books are in lovely condition.) Meanwhile, our modern books on cheap paper start to degrade within a few years; just think of all those yellowed paperbacks from the 70s and later. Hm.

There’s also a Batman collection.

People often ask where ideas come from, or how writers do their research. There is of course no single answer, but for my part, I like to fill my head with as many interesting facts as possible and see how they work their way back to the surface eventually. For example, the director described a particular type of binding with a signature aroma, due to the leathers and dyes used. He said these bindings could always be identified by smell, even before they were examined. How might that come up in a future story, when a character recognizes a forgery or guesses another character’s trade?

The library is open to the public and does have exhibits, so if you’re in the Bloomington, Indiana area, consider stopping by. There are even hands-on puzzles to try!

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