By Elizabeth Van Pilsum, Staff Writer
Over the years, Saint Vincent College (SVC) has collected a wide variety of rare books, some of which are showcased in the Verostko Center. The Rare Book Gallery is relatively new, having opened in 2019, and there is also an extensive number of rare books in climate-controlled storage. All the books included in the collection are either old, rare, valuable, or out of print. Some have physical features warranting special housing, such as being an unusual size or fragility. There is a sub-collection of books written by the college’s monks, faculty, and alumni. Additionally, there is another sub-collection for expensive facsimile editions, which are reproductions of books that mimic the first edition.
Among the rare book collection are complete handwritten manuscripts dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries, as well as manuscript leaves, or loose individual pages, from the 12th to 15th centuries. Additionally, the collection features several dozen incunabula, which are the earliest books printed in Europe from the mid-15th century to 1500.
One person tasked with looking after these special collections is Elizabeth DiGiustino, cataloger and technical librarian for the Dale P. Latimer Library. DiGiustino has worked in academic, federal, and public libraries before coming to work at Saint Vincent, and she has a degree in European history with a focus on Medieval and Renaissance culture. She was thrilled to come to SVC and to get to work with rare books.
“There are hundreds of books published from 1500 to 1800, with a fascinating assortment of embossed bindings, decorative endpapers and edges, metal clasps and bosses, and illustrations,” DiGiustino said. “We’ve gathered books with noteworthy inscriptions, autographs, and ownership marks, including from Boniface Wimmer, Brigham Young, Robert Frost, and Fred Rogers. And there are a number of unusual gems, such as a pirated edition of Paradise Lost from 1764; a palm-leaf manuscript from Ceylon; the Marvelous Miniature Library, a set of classics in a small leather pouch; and a dictionary of sign language handmade by a monk.”
The collection also includes books with fore-edge paintings, which are books where the edges have been painted to form pictures when the book is closed. These books are from Stanbrook Abbey Press, one of the oldest private presses in England operated by Benedictine nuns and well known for fine letterpress printing on handmade papers.
DiGiustino has many favorites, but two stand out. “First is a Rule of St. Benedict, 14th century, from northern Italy. The historiated initial on the first leaf of text depicts St. Benedict handing his Rule to a kneeling monk. Second is a Coptic manuscript from the 13th or 14th century. The script and illustrations are captivating.”
Many of the old books were brought in the 19th century by monks from their sponsoring monastery in Bavaria. When Fr. Fintan Shoniker, O.S.B., was director of libraries from 1949-1968 and 1972-1983, he prioritized the acquisition of manuscripts and manuscript leaves that were either created by or related to the Benedictine community. This pursuit of books was supported by generous benefactors over the years, beginning with King Ludwig I and continuing with alumni, faculty, monks, and the general public.
The Rare Books Gallery is open for visitors in the Verostko Center, where guests can peruse the deluxe editions on the monk-made shelves. “These books are visually appealing, can be held gently with clean hands, and contribute to a welcoming environment,” DiGiustino said. “The secure display case contains incunables, illuminated manuscript leaves, and books and manuscripts related to Benedictine and Saint Vincent history. These should be handled as little as possible, but we believe it’s important to share our collection for its artistic merit and to represent Saint Vincent’s heritage.”
“It’s humbling to realize how precious books were, centuries ago, when materials were scarce and costly, when every pen stroke counted,” DiGiustino said. “St. Benedict believed in balancing prayer, work and reading. It was no surprise, then, that Benedictine scribes, working in medieval scriptoria, played an enormous role in documenting and preserving Western culture. Protecting and sharing these beautiful things is a privilege.”