Book lovers get a thrill with rare CMU collections
Members of the Fellowship of American Bibliophilic Societies, from left, Anne Hoy of Brooklyn, N.Y.; Mary Lane Sullivan of Cleveland; Larry Siegler of Shaker Heights, Ohio; and John Sullivan (husband of Mary Lane Sullivan) browse a book by Geoffrey Chaucer at the Hunt Library on Carnegie Mellon University campus in Oakland on Friday. The book was first printed on May 8, 1896.
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That merry band of extreme book lovers -- the Fellowship of American Bibliophilic Societies -- continued Friday to discover hidden treasures in Pittsburgh, the legacy of fortunes built in Pittsburgh.
As part of their book tour and symposium this week, the 58 visiting members spent the morning at Carnegie Mellon University exploring the Posner Memorial Collection and the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation. These two assemblages of rare tomes, reflecting the passions and inclinations of their collectors, wowed the crowd, who also admired CMU's beautifully displayed general rare book collection.
"It was all just so remarkable," said Veta Mott of Howard S. Mott Books in Sheffield, Mass. "Anytime you can touch such works, it's a great day."
The Posner Memorial Collection features books assembled by the entrepreneur Henry Posner Sr. and advanced by his son, Henry Posner Jr., "as he cultivated the means," said Gloriana St. Clair, dean of libraries at CMU. The senior Mr. Posner began to collect fine bindings, art and family reading; in the 1950s, he began to purchase landmark books in the history of science. The rare objects include a 1543 text from Copernicus and Ptolemy's "Almagest" (1538). Mr. Posner Jr., who built his father's billboard firm into a thriving business conglomerate, died in March at the age of 92, and his family continues to support the collection.
The Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation is the fruit of Rachel McMasters Miller Hunt's childhood passion for plant life and botany. After she married Roy Hunt of Alcoa, she had ample means to assemble an astonishing library of books, prints, documents on botany and horticulture. She donated them all to CMU, which will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the institute in September.
"Everything I saw there, I would not say, 'Oh, there's a better one of these elsewhere,' " remarked David Culbert, president of FABS. "It is a stunning, world-class collection, and a privilege to visit."
A constant theme of the field is the digitalization of rare works, with the distinct advantage of making them available to libraries and readers around the globe. "But consider that [Pierre-Joseph] Redoute drawing of roses," Mr. Culbert said. "Nothing compares to seeing it with your own eyes."
After visits to more familiar Pittsburgh tourist destinations -- the Heinz History Center and the Andy Warhol Museum -- the group landed at the Post-Gazette. They peeked at history in the making (the presses preparing for this issue) and examined a collection of newspaper artifacts held by publisher and editor-in-chief John Robinson Block. With an iPad tucked in one arm, Mr. Block recounted the mechanics of hot type, Morse code, solid Remington typewriters and clunky Nikon SLR cameras, and displayed front pages from Pittsburgh newspapers stretching back centuries.
John Schulman, co-owner of Caliban Books in Oakland, marveled at the sensibilities of this group of bibliophiles. "They are more likely to be deep repositories of knowledge and insight than the books they celebrate," he said. "These people like the culture of books. They come from a diverse range of interests. More than that, they like to read books. They are lobbyists for old books.
"Collecting is a fairly irrational and neurotic activity. But FABS members don't merely seek to collect and possess; they are much more interested in advancing the idea of the book, its aesthetics, its history, and the fact that it is still the ideal way to read anything."
First Published May 14, 2011 12:00 am