The first thing that catches the eye when entering the bibliophile’s paradise that is Special Collections is a massive tome with frayed sheepskin binding lying on the table. Created sometime in the late sixteenth century, the book looks like something out of a Harry Potter movie. The book is an antiphonary, a liturgical book of music used in the singing of a church choir. The antiphonary is so massive in size because it was intended to be set in the front of the church and used by the entire choir at once. This is because of how expensive and labor-intensive such books were to make, rendering it impractical for every member of the choir to have his own. The cover is constructed of leather wrapped wood, with decorative brass decals studding the front. Inside, the pages are made of sheepskin and partially hand-illuminated. The quality of the pages changes depending on the side of the skin they are made from. The pages created from the inside of the sheep are softer and whiter, while the pages created from the outside of the sheep are coarser and more yellow in color. The manuscript is not illuminated in its entirety, which is most likely due to economic conditions of the monastery in which the antiphonary was created.
Based on the materials used to make the colors for the illustrations, it was most likely created by a Spanish monastery without very much money. Yellow and blue colors are used instead of the richer decoration afforded by shavings of gold and lapis lazuli. Angels and cherubs are woodblock printed onto the page instead of hand-drawn. If the stamps are original to the tome, they may indicate that the book wasn’t meant to be seen by the public and instead mainly functioned as a monastery resource.
The antiphonary was recently donated to Reed by an Eastmoreland couple who had owned the book for many years.The antiphonary isn’t in very good condition, but the damage to it allows the interior of the binding to be seen, making it a useful tool for Reed bookbinding and history classes, as well as the scriptorium, which uses the book as a demonstration piece to view binding and calligraphy techniques from the 1500s.
Special Collections is brimming with all sorts of wacky remnants of Reedies past from letters to ceramic dining sets Reedies ate off of in the early 1900s, to the dog collar worn by Simeon Reed’s dog. Among these Reedie-centric curiosities are letters written by a variety of famous individuals.
One letter was written by Virginia Woolf in response to a woman who graduated from Reed in 1939. The student, Madelon Brodie, wrote her thesis on Woolf’s novel The Years. A bestseller during Woolf’s lifetime, it is now one of her least discussed novels. Upon completion of her thesis, Brodie mailed it to Woolf. Woolf’s letter in response is brief; she explains to Brodie that while she wasn’t able to read the thesis in its entirety she did skim it and praises Brodie for her understanding of The Years. Despite the brevity of the letter it is an interesting read because Woolf questions the success of her novel. She believes that in some ways her novel failed because its message was not fully understandable for the majority of its readers — something that didn’t pose an issue for Brodie.
There are other letters too. One from Albert Einstein to the then president of Reed, Peter Odegard, March 19, 1947. Another from Supreme Court Justice William Douglas encouraging Odegard to accept the son of Douglas’s friend into the college. Other letters too make up the collection. Many of these have no connection to Reed college, other than that they were donated to the college for safekeeping. One such letter is from Theodore Roosevelt to a neighbor of his dated August of 1916, encouraging the development of a sewer system that did not seem to be highly popular. He writes that his support should be kept secret because if the people knew a former president had any control over the matter, the government may have a revolt on its hands: “. . .The suspicion of and an attempt by an ex-President would cause immediate revolt.” There are numerous letters from Mark Twain dated around the 1870s which were donated to the college in the 1940s by a former alum. Among the donated letters is a poem written by Ralph Waldo Emerson that has never been published. A newspaper article written in 1944 is attached to the poem. It states that the poem has Emerson’s “characteristically clear-cut penmanship.” I don’t want to argue with the experts, but the poem is illegible.
If you haven’t checked Special Collections out yet, it’s in the basement of the library. Stop by and feel free to ask the Special Collections librarian Gay Walker and Special Collections Assistant Mark Kuestner about anything you might have questions on.