Alma College’s Oldest Book Discovered in Special Collections Library
Commentary on ancient Roman text dates back to 1499
ALMA — The rag paper, the Latin language and font, and the holes made by real bookworms are among the many features that distinguish “Persii familiare commentum” from other books in Alma College’s special collections library.
Another unique characteristic: the book was published in 1499, making it the oldest in Alma’s library. “Persii” takes over the title of oldest book from a collection of writings by the theologian Martin Luther, published in the mid-1500s, according to Associate Professor of History Daniel Wasserman-Soler.
“There’s something about holding an object that is older than the United States that seems special,” Wasserman-Soler said. “We have a culture that really emphasizes the modern and disposable products of the day, but if you give students something rare and old — it doesn’t even have to be all that valuable — it can spark the imagination and lead to something really cool.”
Now-retired special collections archivist Viki Everhart found the book earlier this year. It’s unknown how long it has been in possession of the college, but inscriptions show where it came from. The book was donated to Alma College by the late Beverly Chew, whose father-in-law, Job Pierson, was a librarian at the college in 1889-92.
According to Alma College librarian Matthew Collins, the book is a commentary on the works of Aulus Persius Flaccus, a Roman poet whose works became popular in the Middle Ages. The commentary, likely written by someone studying Latin, is published side-by-side with Perisus’ words.
Books as old as “Persii” are known as “incunabula,” Collins said, which is a term for any book published in Europe between 1450 and 1500, the first decades of print in Europe. “Persii” has managed to stay in good shape largely because it was printed on rag paper, Collins said, which is much less acidic and therefore longer-lasting than the books of today.
In addition to the Latin text, the college’s book is notable for several different annotations in the margins, which Collins said appear to be written by three different people of unknown origin.
“I can’t say what’s in the annotations, because they are written in Latin. But they do appear to be very old, and written with an iron gall ink — you can tell that because the color of the ink has turned brown,” Collins said. “You also notice these little tiny holes in the front portion of the book, which were actually caused by bookworms. Thankfully, there are not many holes in this book.”
“Persii” is written in a font called Fraktur, a blackletter typeface commonly used in Latin and German texts. Although books of the era were frequently re-bound due to wear and tear, this one likely wasn’t, said Collins, pointing to its large margins as evidence.
“Oftentimes, when books are re-bound, the margins are cut. You find some that are re-bound and they are cut really close along the margins. In here, they are large and consistent throughout,” Collins said.
There are about 30 known copies of “Persii” in the world. Only two of them, including the one at Alma College, are in the United States — the other is at Harvard University’s Houghton Library.
Wasserman-Soler, who has taught several spring term courses on the early age of printing in Europe, said he could use “Persii” as an example of the development of printing technology.
“I could show students this versus the Luther volumes, for example, and they can see the different kinds of texts that existed in the era, the way the technology evolved,” he said. “‘Persii’ is fairly simple. It’s not especially pretty, but there are some that are even simpler. It’s very interesting.”
Collins is working with a 2017 Alma College graduate, Jessica Bigelow, on digitizing “Persii” and other books in the college’s special collections library. Bigelow, who is now pursuing a Master of Library and Information Science degree at Indiana University, said it is a good opportunity to work on such an old text in a professional setting.
“It was great experience for me to go through the process of examining the book, digitizing the book, and then creating the metadata to make the digitized copy searchable, which was especially important, since the book was not yet cataloged when I scanned it,” Bigelow said.
“It was also really exciting for me to be able to work with this book because, as a scholar, my primary research area is book history in the early modern period … so I always geek out a little bit when I get to work with incunabula,” she added.