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Family, CMU to showcase rare books |

Family, CMU to showcase rare books

Bill Zlatos
| Monday, April 2, 2001 12:00 p.m

The Posner Fine Arts Foundation is negotiating with Carnegie Mellon University to construct a building on campus to showcase its multimillion-dollar collection of rare books and artifacts, including an original Bill of Rights.

The 1,000 volumes and 300 jade and ivory pieces have been on loan to the university’s Hunt Library since 1978. But CMU officials believe the construction of a partially underground building topped by a garden would add to the campus and make the collection even more accessible to the public.

‘It will showcase the jade and ivory collection as well as the rare book collection much more beautifully and dramatically than they can be showcased now, because of limited space,’ said university librarian Gloriana St. Clair.

The collection is housed in the Fine and Rare Books Room on the fourth floor of the library. Currently, the room is open from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and by special appointment.

St. Clair said only about 10 people a week visit the room now. But she estimated 100 people would enjoy the Posner Collection weekly if it is moved.

One site being considered, said university architect Paul J. Tellers, is the location of the Studio Theatre between the College of Fine Arts and the Graduate School of Industrial Administration. The theater has been replaced by the Helen Wayne Rauh Studio Theatre in the Purnell Center.

Henry Posner Jr., a member of the university’s board, his wife Helen and the university would pay for the building, St. Clair said. No cost has been set yet.

Posner’s father and mother, Henry Sr. and Ida, bought the books and jade and ivory pieces over 50 years.

His late father originally focused on beautifully bound books and those of artistic or historic merit before concentrating on books of scientific importance.

As a result, the collection includes a 1792 copy of the Bill of Rights, a 1663 Shakespeare, a 1478 Bible, and centuries-old books by scientists such as Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo and Newton.

If moved to a more visible spot, the collection would show off symbols of the right and left hemispheres of Carnegie Mellon’s brain, with its focus on the arts as well as technology.

‘I see it as a way of Carnegie Mellon University saying to the people who are coming there, ‘This is what we hold as valuable. This is what we want to celebrate,” said John Ezra Schulman, owner of the nearby Caliban Book Shop in Oakland.

‘It sounds to me what you have are some of the major hallmarks in the history of science,’ said Mark Dimunation, chief of rare books for the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

He said books such as the Shakespeare volume are useful in teaching modern students the sounds and appearance of a 17th century text.

‘These are precisely the kind of tools from the past for teaching purposes at research institutions,’ he said.

Foundation officials and the Posner family could not be reached for comment on the value of the collection, and St. Clair declined to disclose the appraisal.

Schulman speculated that it’s worth ‘in the mid-seven figures.’ But that’s a tough call, he said, because some of the collection’s items come up for sale only once every 20 or 30 years.

‘It’s impossible to accumulate the same kind of collection nowadays,’ he said. ‘So even if you or I had $10 million to spend and wanted to replicate that library, we couldn’t do it because we’d have to wait so long for some of those items to come up on the market.’

St. Clair said the Bill of Rights is probably the most valuable item in the collection. Only three exist in the world. When a 1776 copy of the Declaration of Independence went on auction last year, it fetched $8.1 million.

The Bill of Rights is St. Clair’s personal favorite. The collection boasts one of the 13 copies of the document that Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson sent to each governor.

‘I’m a real Thomas Jefferson fan,’ she said. ‘I like to think he really touched it when he sent it out to the states.’

Mary Kay Johnsen, special collections librarian, prefers Copernicus’ book theorizing that the sun is the center of the solar system. That changed how people thought about the universe for the previous 1,500 years, she said.

The most beautiful book is a tossup between a 1912 copy of Omar Khayyam’s ‘Rubaiyat’ and a 1931 edition of Thomas Gray’s ‘An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.’ Both were bound by the famous English firm of Sangorski and Sutcliffe.

Dubbed ‘the snake book’ by staff, the ‘Rubaiyat’s’ cover features a menacing snake made of snake skin with a ruby eye. The leather book is gilded and set with 14 sapphires and 12 garnets.

Gray’s book is illuminated on vellum or animal skin and studded with 70 diamonds.

Henry Jr. and Helen Posner gave the university a Swiss scanner to digitize the archives. St. Clair said it’s the same kind the Vatican used to digitize its collection.

St. Clair said the proposed building and garden could enhance Oakland, too.

‘Certainly, it’ll be a destination for all the dignitaries who come to Carnegie Mellon,’ she said. ‘It’s close in with the museums, the Cathedral (of Learning) and Phipps.

‘It could be on a walking tour.’

Bill Zlatos can be reached at or (412) 320-7828.

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