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Ellis Library features Special Collections room

Dig through history in a literary treasure trove

March 10, 2011 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Stowed away behind locked doors and alarm systems in MU’s Ellis Library hide more than 100,000 rare and quirky books worth millions of dollars. They are like hidden treasures within the library, but anyone can access them in Special Collections Reading Room 401. It would be exhausting to see them all, so here is a preview of a few appealing ones.

For More Info

To learn more about these collections and others at the library, call 882-0076, or click here.

Comic art
Alley Oop and Beetle Bailey come alive in this collection of comic strips and manuscript correspondence from cartoon artists. Behind a case in the reading room lies the original metal printing plate from a Beetle Bailey comic strip from Feb. 7, 1975. The comics are in plastic sleeves for protection, so hands off.

Dime novels
This category contains stories written for young males in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A Buffalo Bill and Billy the Kid novel from 1906 showcases a colored cover that could be mistaken for that of a modern-day comic book. Although they are fragile, patrons are allowed to handle them. Special Collections librarian Kelli Hansen says these books were produced for young audiences at the turn of the century at a cheap price — a dime.

Every article in this collection was printed before 1501. A 12th-century loose-leaf page from the Bible’s Acts of the Apostles is adorned with red and blue colors. The work includes an intricate depiction of the apostles looking up at Jesus’ feet during his ascension. The expressions on the faces of the apostles are visible — under a magnifying glass, of course. The colors are vivid and accompanied by real gold. Seriously, this paper is blinged out. A process involving snail glue was used to keep the gold dust from flaking more than 800 years later.

This group of works includes a wide variety of manuscripts, such as church sermons, prayers, scholarly writings, notes and fragments of books. Ovid’s Metamorphoses circa 1550 lives here. “It’s handwritten in Latin,” says Anne Stanton, MU professor of art history and archeology. There was so much room between the lines that someone went back through and added an Italian translation to accompany the Latin. “You can learn about them as active and changing objects.”

Rare books
This collection houses some of the most surprising and fascinating treasures of Ellis, such as Conrad Gesner’s encyclopedia Historia Animalium. It describes and illustrates animals of all kinds, including a funny picture of a monkfish with the head, arms and feet of a human. Amazingly, the book is still encased in its original pigskin binding and iron clasps from 1557. According to Michael Holland, director of Special Collections, Archives and Rare Books, the entire rare books collection is worth a whopping $9 million.

World War I and II posters
Posters from both World Wars and the inter-war period make up this grouping, but they aren’t just from the good ol’ U.S. of A. In fact, most are from European countries. Hansen says the posters embody beautiful imagery and graphic art. In one poster, the Statue of Liberty comes alive and points her finger down with the message, “You buy a Liberty Bond lest I perish.” Another poster depicts an idealized young version of Joan of Arc encouraging women to buy war savings stamps with her outstretched sword.

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