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Hidden treasure

9:59 AM  Mar 5th, 2009
by Michelle Tedford

The Rosech Library has 10,000 titles in its rare book collection. At night, only one lives behind inches of steel: a 1498 printing of musings by Peter Schott of Strasbourg.

“Only one can I fit in the safe; the vault is small,” said Nicoletta Hary, curator of special collections, as she reverently fingered the ragged book cover. It is an incunable, or “cradle book,” created in the first 50 years of the moveable type printing press.

The book was featured in the inaugural issue of the University of Dayton Magazine.

It is Roesch Library’s oldest printed book. Its title, translated from the Latin, is Small and Very Ornate Lucubrations of Peter Schott, Patrician of Strasbourg, a Man Learned in Both Laws (Civil and Ecclesiastical), Very Elegant Orator and Poet, and Well Learned in the Greek Language.

As Schott was jotting his opinions, the printing press was spreading throughout Europe. It had been invented in 1450 in Mainz by former Strasbourg resident Johann Gutenberg. In 1498, eight years after Schott’s death, his opinions met the printed page.

Nine libraries worldwide have a copy of this late incunable — literally, “cradle book,” from the first 50 years of moveable-type printing — with still-visible indentations made as each lead letter pressed onto the page.

Its cover is ragged, its pages water-stained, clues to its 500-year journey. The last leg — from Europe to Dayton — is known only in lore: A priest supposedly pulled it from the rubble of a bombed German city and donated it to UD.

“Now that so much is available electronically, special collections mean so much more than they did in the past,” said Hary. “Having the real thing is very meaningful.”

The University’s rare book collection has little money for restoration, which is why, if you finger the title page, you’ll find a centuries-old worm-hole through the center of the “p” in Poetæ. The little guy made it through to Page 15.

Hary, who trained in library sciences at the Vatican Library, also pulled from the rare book shelves items including JFK memorabilia, Paul Laurence Dunbar poems and early 20th century titles with elegant gold-embossed, art deco-inspired covers.

She knows each title, yet each time she lightly lifts a tome it is a spiritual experience. She calls it “learning the treasure of a book.”

So many more treasures than could fit into any safe.

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