University of Iowa's blog gains attention for tiny Bibles, hidden paintings

From a box of swords to the papers of famous UI alumni, library's 3rd floor has plenty to see

Published: December 29 2013 | 7:02 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 1:23 am in
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On the third floor of the University of Iowa Main Library you can find everything from a nearly 4,000 year-old Cuneiform-inscribed clay tablet (it’s a pre-paper receipt for a goat, if you’re curious) to the model cars created as the basis for James Bond’s Aston Martins.

This is the UI’s Special Collections and University Archives. Much of the public bustling by on Iowa City’s busy streets isn’t aware of just what this part of the library has to offer. Those that do know Special Collections exists might not feel comfortable coming in and asking to view the library’s page from a Gutenberg Bible - the first book printed on a printing press - or to see the extensive collection of historical cookbooks.

That’s why outreach and instruction librarian Colleen Theisen started a Special Collections and Archives blog on Tumblr, with frequent posts showing off books, photos and items from the collection.

“We’re trying to get out the message - we’re here, and we’re a resource,” Theisen said. “It helps counter that feeling of inaccessibility.”

Her efforts are gaining notice. The Special Collections blog was recently named one of the “New and Notable Blogs of 2013,”  on Tumblr, alongside blogs from such cultural institutions as Madonna and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

That made Theisen's day.

"I just went, 'Ahhhhh!' and screamed and jumped up and down and then posted it everywhere,” she said.

She said two posts have gone viral since the blog launched in 2012.

The first was a post about a 4-millimeter copy of the Bible’s Book of Genesis. The book fits on a fingertip and can only be read under a microscope.

Special Collections has around 4,000 miniature books, but this is the tiniest. It was sold as the world’s smallest book at the 1965 World’s Fair in New York, though even more minuscule books have since usurped the title.

On the other end of the spectrum, the archive has a 50-pound book, “Poetry City Marathon,” by Iowa City poet Dave Morice, also known as Dr. Alphabet. The 10,000 page tome needs its own cart and is two-feet thick.

“We have a massively large and strange collection of things,” Theisen said.

Most items in the collection are more conventionally sized, with books ranging from illuminated medieval manuscripts to modern day science fiction fanzines.

The blog’s second viral post featured fore-edge paintings on a series of books by Robert Mudie, published in 1837. These images, found on the end of the pages of a book, can only be seen when the book’s pages are fanned a certain way.

Often the paintings go unnoticed, since they are invisible when the book is closed. They are usually unique, painted onto a single copy of a book, Theisen said.

“It reveals itself just as you begin to read,” Theisen said. “It’s a hidden surprise.”

The fore-edge painting images were picked up by blogs and media around the world. Theisen said she has had UI professors come in, saying they first heard about the books from colleagues overseas.

“When you get the word out about what you have, it find its audience,” she said.

The list of interesting and historical items in Special Collections goes on and on, from a box of swords donated along with documents from a fraternal order to the papers donated by families of famous UI alumni. One of those alumni is Richard Maibaum, who wrote the scripts for the first 16 James Bond films. The model Aston Martins mentioned at the beginning of this article? They were donated alongside Maibaum’s original scripts and notes, including letters of critique from actor Sean Connery.

To share all this with the public, the department actually runs three Tumblr blogs - one specifically for the Hevelin Collection, a trove of science fiction materials the department is still processing, and another for the Iowa Women’s Archives, a division of Special Collections focused on women’s history.

Then, there are Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts and a YouTube channel - anything to connect with the wider world.

Special Collections staff members said they’re always eager to share the artifacts and books they interact with on a daily basis. In the past, that sharing was regulated to exhibits around campus and a few scholars or students at a time. But now, the Internet lets them share the collection's books with the entire world.

“It’s show-and-tell on an exalted level,” Special Collections processing librarian Pete Balestrieri said. “It’s great to see behind the scenes.”

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