EM Summer 2004



Emory Weekend

Alumni in Africa


Alumni Authors

n the top floor of the Pitts Theology Library, there is a vast room filled with ten-foot-tall shelves and protected by heavy locks and a security keypad, to which only a handful of people know the code. Although the building itself was the first erected on the Emory campus and is nearly a century old, this room’s lofty ceilings are now equipped with a high-tech sprinkler system that would, if necessary, squelch a fire with a special dry chemical agent. Machines monitor the temperature and humidity, and everyone who works in the building is well trained to salvage its contents in the case of some unforeseen disaster.

To scholars of Martin Luther and the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, the contents of this room are equivalent to the most precious museum holdings anywhere, a place of pilgrimage. Unbeknownst to many, the Pitts library houses North America’s largest and most extensive collection of Martin Luther’s early printed works, and is among the top three largest holdings of German Reformation materials on this continent.

“It’s really quite extraordinary,” says Pitts library director Patrick Graham (above). “With 520,000 volumes, we are the second-largest theology library in North America, and make up 20 percent of the holdings of all Emory libraries.” By contrast, Harvard’s divinity library, another major source of Reformation materials, constitutes 3 percent of that university’s total holdings.

The Pitts library’s Richard C. Kessler Reformation Collection was established in 1987 when Richard and Martha Kessler donated their private collection of forty-nine Reformation imprints and manuscripts to Emory. Added to materials from the Beck Lutherana Collection purchased in 1975, these formed the foundation for the holdings amassed by then-director Channing Jeschke and now Graham, who has been with the library for sixteen years.

When the collection began under the stewardship of Jeschke and then-President James T. Laney, Graham says, the idea was not to collect a handful of the rarest books in the world but to identify areas of critical significance–such as the Reformation–and build collections numbering in the thousands. The collection is now valued at about $4 million.

Firmly anchored by some 850 original works composed by Martin Luther–including a copy of the rare and highly influential September Testament of 1522, Luther’s translation of the Greek New Testament into German–the Kessler collection of twenty-eight hundred books, pamphlets, and manuscripts focuses on the pivotal Reformation years 1500-1570. One aspect that makes it special, Graham says, is that it seeks to illuminate the full range of dialogue surrounding the Reformation, featuring not only Luther’s words but those of his colleagues and his opponents.

“One of our themes is to provide context for these important figures,” Graham says. “We have been very interested in materials by the Catholics who attacked Martin Luther. Of the thirty to a hundred Reformation items we buy each year, probably about 20 percent are Roman Catholic.”

In total, the Pitts library might purchase seven thousand books in a year, two thousand of which are placed in the rare book vault. Graham maintains time-honored relationships with some two dozen rare book houses in the U.S., Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, which publish catalogues a few times annually. When the catalogues appear, Graham says, he drops anything else he’s doing in order to comb through what’s being offered, looking for potential additions that fit the Pitts niche. When he makes his selections, he places the order within twenty-four hours–one advantage of being a relatively small operation. Other times, Graham bids by phone at prestigious auctions in Germany and New York. Competition for these materials is stiff.

Pitts also distinguishes itself through its use of information technology. Thanks to a series of grants, the library is in the process of developing a massive digital image archive where anyone with a computer can access some eight thousand graphic images from the collection, mainly woodcuts. Graphic artist Margaret Peddle works upstairs in the Pitts Library’s Special Collections in front of a huge computer screen, painstakingly scanning, manipulating, and posting these images one by one, at a rate of about fifty a week. They can be viewed and downloaded for free, and are available to scholars, religious leaders, and book publishers in high-resolution form for a modest fee. When enlarged, the detail of these pictures is remarkable.

“The digital archive is Emory’s gift to the world,” Graham says. Anyone who is interested can pay ten dollars per image to help give this gift, and their name will appear along with the image every time it is viewed.

In addition to digitizing, the library works with Emory’s preservation office to have its materials microfilmed, a process that can cost about $175 a book. Many of the books are half a millennium old and even kid-glove handling can’t make them last forever, so it’s important to capture them on film, Graham says.

Walking through the rare book vault, Graham can pluck beloved treasures from its shelves seemingly at random. One favorite is what the library staff jokingly calls a “Readers Digest version” of the Bible, a heavy tome bound in expensive pigskin with an intricate pattern pressed onto its covers by a metal tool. Entitled Summary About the Entire Bible, the book’s inside cover tells a colorful story of its history, from its publication in 1548 to its travels through East Germany to a bookseller in Milwaukee.

From another shelf Graham pulls a small, scarlet Methodist hymnal with a gilded design, quite ornate for its time. On its cover, a crudely inked black cross covers the name of some former owner. The Pitts library’s music collection is very extensive and an important resource for the study of hymns and hymnody. “Our collection of English and American hymnals is exceeded only by the Library of Congress,” Graham says.

Graham has an obvious fondness for these aged objects, which he has spent much of his career gathering. But despite their need for careful handling, Graham wants the library’s materials to be widely available to anyone who might be interested. The Pitts library staff offers about fifty presentations each year to college and seminary classes, rotary clubs, art classes, and various church and community groups. Recently, the library was featured on Atlanta’s Channel 11 news.

“We do not view these materials as a kind of museum where they have to be protected, but as a resource library where we bring people and materials together,” Graham says. “Our mission is to collect broadly in theology, to create what is really a treasure in American and religious scholarship.”–P.P.P.

To scholars of Martin Luther and the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, the contents of this room are equivalent to the most precious museum holdings anywhere, a place of pilgrimage.



© 2004 Emory University