It’s not easy to know what treasures exist within the Boston Public Library’s Rare Books Department. Some of it is even a mystery to the library staff taking inventory.
The majority of the nearly 250,000 books and estimated 1 million manuscripts are categorized through old card catalogs. Titles or subject are typed out in a tidy script. In February, staff members began been electronically recording every book in the department for the first time.
“I would say that most of the collection is kind of unknown,” said Laura Irmscher, chief of collections strategy at the library. “You have to be a particular researcher or scholar to follow the trails to find that we have something.”
The inventory is the first phase of a larger, $15.7 million project to assure that documents from centuries ago can survive for centuries more. The second phase: Major environmental and mechanical upgrades prompted in part by the discovery two years ago of mold spores pocking vintage spines and frayed pages.
In the library’s trove, there are original letters and poems by poet Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe, and books that date to the earliest days of printing. There are some of the oldest editions of Shakespeare’s plays; a copy of the works of Cicero, which John Adams kept in his back pocket; medieval manuscripts from as early as the 10th century; Colonial and Revolutionary War documents; and Spanish literature from the 16th century.
Recently, Irmscher was working on the inventory when she realized in awe she was holding a first edition “Don Quixote.”
After April 27, the Rare Books Department will be closed to the public during the renovation. Until then, it’s on a reduced viewing schedule, open only on Thursdays by appointment.
There are two floors of stacks, a conservation lab, offices, and a reading room where the public can request items for viewing. The fluctuation of humidity and temperature in the more than 40-year-old Johnson Building is the enemy of old books. It took 10 weeks at the end of 2015 to rid the collection of mold, one of the catalysts, Irmscher said, for the library to begin thinking seriously about how to better preserve these collections.
The inventory is expected to take five months and involves recording bar codes and call numbers to identify where the book is on the shelf. The design and renovation of the space will follow.
“We’re adding a paper clip, which is called a flag, that has a bar code on it to the inside of every book in the collection,” Irmscher said. “With rare books, we don’t want to affix anything onto the item because it’s hundreds and hundreds of years old. We want to preserve the binding and everything original about the book.”
For the last 14 years, Bruce Kennett, a book designer and photographer based in North Conway, N.H., and Hartland, Vt., has made at least 100 trips to the Rare Books Department.
The subject of Kennett’s study and his book to be published this summer is William Addison Dwiggins, a book artist, calligrapher, book and furniture designer, writer, and multitalented visual artist who lived in Hingham. Dwiggins built 60 puppets and two marionette theatres. The Boston Public Library is the world epicenter for Dwiggins’s works, Kennett said. He calls the breadth of the collection a place where all these subjects converge.
“This place that kind of looks like a fortress from outside is filled with treasures that belong to the people of Boston,” Kennett said. “Anyone can go in there as long as you show a legitimate interest.”
Professors such as Cheryl Nixon, chairwoman of the English department at the University of Massachusetts Boston, bring students to the Rare Books Department to look at first editions such as an original “Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe.
“Special collections preserves Boston’s history and Boston’s rich culture — Boston owns it and the BPL protects it,” said Nixon, who is also a member of the Boston Public Library’s Special Collections Committee. “Boston citizens should be really proud that they own one of the best rare books collections in the United States.”