The box arrived at Lemieux Library and McGoldrick Learning Commons in mid-December. University Librarian John Popko opened it, and after carefully removing one protective shell after another, reached its contents: The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible (1999), a two-volume, limited-edition of the King James Bible.
Popko was expecting the package. A few months earlier, out of the blue, he was contacted by a representative of Bruce and Suzie Kovner, patrons of the arts in New York City. Considering the university's academic programs, library holdings and nature and location, the donors saw SU as a fitting recipient of the bible, which Popko learned was commissioned by Bruce Kovner and appraised at $8,000. Popko enthusiastically accepted the donation.
And yet even though the delivery had been anticipated, Popko says he gasped in awe at the sight of the bible. After taking a moment to page through the two volumes--Old and New Testaments--he carefully returned them to their slip cases and repackaged them for safe keeping.
Now, a month later, with an air of reverence, he was repeating the unpacking process, this time to show the donated books to a visitor before they were catalogued and placed in the library's Special Collections. It was an unofficial unveiling of sorts and Mary Sepulveda, associate librarian and coordinator of collection development, was present. And similarly transfixed.
A text to treasure
There's a temptation to think of books in special collections as old or fragile or rare.
SU's newest acquisition is hardly ancient; it was completed a mere 16 years ago. And nary a tatter, wrinkle, smudge, blemish or imperfection of any kind has yet to be visited on the bible. So that rules out "old" and "fragile."
How about "rare?" SU's bible is copy number 256 of the 400 that exist. While it's certainly a limited edition, there are rarer works in SU's Special Collections, to be sure.
As Popko points out, there are many factors that can make a work quote-unquote special.
And indeed The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible possesses certain qualities that warrant its inclusion among the library's most treasured possessions.
For one thing, the volumes were designed and illustrated by Barry Moser, who Popko calls "one of America's premier graphic artists from the last 50 years." For the bible, Moser created 233 illustrations in all. Some depict the story that's being told in the accompanying text. Some are more abstract or metaphorical representations. Each is exquisite. "It's the illustrations that make this so special," Sepulveda says as she carefully takes her maiden voyage through the bible's pages.
Perhaps as notable as Moser's artistry is the fact that the bible, according to the publisher, is the first since 1865 to include original illustrations by one artist for every book of the Old and New Testaments.
Yet there's more to it than that. The bible, as a whole, really is a work of art. In this digitized age of ours, with texts appearing and disappearing into the ether with a quick swipe of the finger, a work like The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible celebrates the book in its tactile and enduring glory. From the high-quality materials used for the bindings and paper to the letter-press printing to the sparingly used but powerfully incorporated gold inlays--these and other elements combine to create a work of "elegant simplicity," in Popko's words. "It's a masterpiece of design and execution."
"In terms of the book arts," he continues, "it may be the premier item that we own, and it would certainly be up there in the top tier of works in our Special Collections."
Special, but not off-limits
So what happens when an item like The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible takes its place among SU's Special Collections?
To begin with, the materials are well cared for. As part of the building of McGoldrick and remodeling of Lemieux, the university's most prized materials are now situated in an environment that is optimal for their preservation in terms of temperature, humidity and lighting.
And yet the items in Special Collections are hardly relics that are never to be seen again. On the contrary, SU's librarians relish any chances they have to share--under their guided supervision, of course--the riches that reside on the sixth floor of the library and learning commons. Our librarians brighten when talking about how faculty and students have consulted SU's collections as part of their course work or research.
Sepulveda sees The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible as a great resource for students and faculty interested in studying Moser's art, or book art, more generally.
She encourages members of the SU community to visit the Special Collections web page, and to schedule an appointment if they see something they'd like to peruse.
"We want people to come and use the Special Collections," she says. "It's no good if it's behind a locked door--someone needs to enjoy it."