Danny Wasserman loves old books. He looks forward to those times when he can research the centuries-old volumes that are found in the closed section of the Alma College Library. He examines them closely, reads the inscriptions and notices unique printing characteristics. He reserves selected tomes and shares them with his students in class.
He’s discovered many gems in Alma’s collection, but none more intriguing — and perhaps more valuable — than the three volumes of the collective writings of Martin Luther, the 16th century professor of theology credited with starting the Protestant Reformation.
The oldest books in the library, the Luther volumes were published by German printers in 1560, 1562 and 1565, less than 20 years after Luther’s death. Titled The Books and Writings of the Revered and Blessed Man of God, Dr. Martin Luther, the volumes — the fourth, sixth and seventh in a series — were donated to Alma College by Rev. James F. Dickie in the early 20th century.
The books are large, about four inches thick and well maintained, though the covers have faded. The writings are in German, with some Latin quotes sprinkled throughout. To safely preserve them, Wasserman and library staff handle them carefully and place them in cradles when on display to prevent putting too much pressure on the fragile book spines.
Martin Luther: A Controversial Writer
“These particular volumes were meant to be showpieces in a personal library,” says Wasserman, assistant professor of history who teaches courses in medieval and renaissance history. “They have elegant bindings with metal clasps, which were originally used to prevent the pages from expanding too much but later became a decorative feature.
“On the covers there are inscriptions and intricate designs,” he says. “Many rare books have bindings that were added by collectors in the 19th century, but our covers have the original bindings to when they were printed. The covers are made of wood and covered by animal skin, which was a standard practice of the time.”
The volumes contain Luther’s writings — mainly sermons and Bible commentaries. Much of his work was controversial for his time. Historians note that his most famous writings were the Ninety-five Theses and On Christian Liberty, in which Luther argues that good works contribute absolutely nothing toward salvation; instead, it was faith alone what could justify humans in the eyes of God.
He also argued that scripture alone is authoritative, not the words of the pope or other human authors and clergymen. His controversial “faith alone” and “scripture alone” beliefs put him at odds with the practices of the Roman Catholic Church and sparked a political and cultural movement that would define the modern era.
“Our library has many old books that are not necessarily rare,” says Wasserman. “But these Martin Luther volumes are extremely rare — there are not many copies available.”
Sparking the Imagination
When Wasserman joined the Alma College faculty in 2013, he realized that the library did not have a librarian who specialized in old books. So he determined to dig in on his own and investigate the library’s collection.
“The library staff allowed me to come into the closed section to look around, and I was very surprised,” he says. “I expected we would have books from the 18th and 19th centuries, but never anticipated books from the 16th century. I was very pleased, and very excited. I bring these old books, some 300 or 400 years old, to class and try to get students excited about studying history.”
For Wasserman, allowing students to handle the books, to open the pages and read, is an extension of the “experiential learning” that Alma College faculty strive to include in their courses.
“I can show students a video of the pyramids at Giza,” he explains. “That’s cool, but everyone agrees that going to the pyramids and seeing them up close is better. I’ve shown my students pictures of old books, but it’s not that interesting. But if I pass around an old book, then that’s more exciting. Holding a rare book sparks the imagination and gets you excited. That’s a key thing for us here at Alma, where we want our students to get excited about learning.
“There also are the more technical things about old books that are interesting,” he says. “Each particular copy tells you something about the book - none are exactly the same. The original owner may have given it a different binding, or the comments in the margins are unique.”
Hooked on History
His interest in old books was sparked in graduate school during his studies of the Reformation period. In one of his first classes, the assignment was to go the school library’s special collections, find a book from that period, study it, and then give a report to the class.
“I found a Medieval choir book, published in 1450, with a thick wooden cover that stood more than two feet tall — it was a big book,” he says. “It was my first experience with rare books, and I became hooked. I continued to study old books in my dissertation research, traveling to libraries in Europe and the United States.
“Here at Alma, we have a nice teaching collection, a broad collection of books from past centuries, some by very well-known authors,” he says. “I’m very grateful we have them.”
Reprinted from The Tartan magazine, Winter 2018.