University of Minnesota Alumni Association


A Literary Treasure Hunt

The U is home to a weird and wonderful collection of bookish artifacts.

The vast University of Minnesota Libraries system—in possession of millions of books and magazines, and able to address tens of thousands of research questions annually—provides U faculty and students with comprehensive coverage of the humanities, arts, sciences, and other areas of study.

But, if U libraries is the universe, the Department of Archives and Special Collections is its glorious Pegasus constellation. Housed mostly in the Elmer L. Andersen Library on the West Bank, the department is a storehouse of the idiosyncratic: the rare, the very old, and the highly unusual. Letters, books, medieval manuscripts, antique maps, recordings, artworks, and even toys have come to the collections from donors obsessed with particular subjects; they are cared for and lovingly added to by curators who understand obsession. 

The department is divided into 17 subdivisions, including the Givens Collection of African American Literature; the Children’s Literature Research Collections; the Immigration History Research Center Archives; the Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies; and the Wangensteen Library of Biology and Medicine. These deep-dive collections are teaching and research tools, of course, but they’re also available to anybody who wants to come and look.

Out of this richness, we’ve selected five treasures that shouldn’t be missed, with the help of Timothy Johnson, curator of Special Collections and Rare Books, which oversees materials that need extra special care, and Marguerite Ragnow, curator of the James Ford Bell Library, which focuses on international trade and navigation from the Middle Ages through the 18th century.

Of course, there’s much more in Archives and Special Collections: the New Testament portion of the original King James Bible; exquisite 300-year-old anatomy books; a hand-drawn map of an Amazon tributary by Alexander von Humboldt, the greatest naturalist of the early 19th century—a universe of rarity, beauty, and significance owned and offered by our University.


Ancient Sumer, in what’s now southern Iraq, was a well-organized place. Bureaucrats in the third millennium BCE were expected to keep careful track of all expenditures and record them on clay tablets in cuneiform, the Mesopotamian script. Among its oldest artifacts, special collections has 16 of these tablets, which were created by hardworking government men like, for example, Lu-Ninubur, who accounted for “two reed mats to cover a boat, their size 1/2 sar, for a flour boat, place of Ur-Ulpae.”

Courtesy University of Minnesota Libraries


Le Propriétaire des Choses (“On the Nature of Things”) is a 14th-century translation into French of a Latin original from the 1200s. “It’s the first European encyclopedia to incorporate knowledge from the Middle East—both Arab and Jewish—especially scientific information,” says Ragnow. “It has amazing illuminations and decorations, including animals both real and mythical, surrounding all of this science.”


Two continents in the Western Hemisphere are called “America” thanks to German mapmaker and printer Martin Waldseemüller. In 1507, he decided to name what we now call South America after the Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who proved that what Columbus had reached was a “new world,” not Asia. His wall map exists in only one copy, at the Library of Congress, but Waldseemüller also created versions meant to be pasted onto globes. Three are known to exist—and the Bell Library has one. It was in the news in January 2018, explains Ragnow, because it helped catch a forger. When a purported Waldseemüller was offered at auction by Christie’s, it was shown to have a small rip that forgers had copied from the Bell map.

Courtesy University of Minnesota Libraries


Yes, the biggest treasure trove of material relating to Sherlock Holmes, some 60,000 items, is housed near the Mississippi, not the Thames. It’s actually a separate division of the department, and caring for it is rare-book curator Johnson’s other main job. He explains that an initial purchase of a small collection of Holmes-related books was vastly expanded by the rarities donated by 1950 Nobel prizewinner and Mayo Clinic consulting physician Philip Hench and his wife Mary. But the trove didn’t attain world-record status until New Mexico entrepreneur John Bennett Shaw, who has no connection to the U but was impressed by its collection, donated his hoard of Holmes artifacts, from board games to bars of soap.


Digital artist Michael Hawley, director of special projects at MIT’s Media Lab, often took his students on international study trips. One of his favorite destinations was the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. “Hawley wanted to do something for the children of Bhutan,” says Johnson, “and in the end he came up with the idea of doing a photo book of Bhutan, five feet high, seven feet wide when it’s opened, and 130 pounds”—and considered the world’s largest published book. Hawley first produced it in 2003 using MIT’s gargantuan, high-tech digital printer and sold it for a whopping sum, with proceeds benefiting Bhutanese schools and educational programs. The U has two copies of this behemoth.

Jon Spayde is a writer and editor who lives in St. Paul.

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