November 10, 2003

Pitts collection one of world's most important

By Eric Rangus

No effort or expense should be spared to provide good libraries or book repositories," reads a letter addressed to a governmental council in Europe. "For if the gospel and all arts are to be preserved, they must be set down and held fast in books and writings."

The author of the letter, which was given to the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany in 1524, was Martin Luther. Quite obviously, when the 16th century church reformer wrote those words he was not thinking about Emory, or even a non-European library, but if he was, he wouldn't have been far off.

One of the continent's--if not the world's--largest collections of 16th century Protestant Reformation materials is located at Emory. Housed in the Pitts Theology Library, the Richard C. Kessler Reformation Collection includes nearly 2,800 books, pamphlets and manuscripts, all issued before 1570 and all dealing with the German Reformation. About 850 of those works, including the manuscript quoted above, were written by Luther himself. Others are by authors who attack Luther and his teachings, as well as many written by his friends and supporters.

The collection, which grows every year (75 items were added during 2002-03), is valued at more than $4 million. The bulk of it is kept in Pitts' rare book vault on the library's top floor. Just five people have keys to the room, and even fewer know the keycode that permits entry. Some of the books are fragile enough that readers must wear white linen gloves to flip through them.

"The Kessler Collection is the best single source of early Protestant Reformation imprints in North America," said John Witte, Jonas Robitscher Professor of Law and director of the Law and Religion Program and the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Religion. Pitts Library Director Pat Graham said Witte knows the collection "better than anyone."

"The collection is a treasure for all of us at Emory and for all of us who labor in the Reform-ation and early modern history," Witte said.

"Reformation places for observation and study used to be Wittenberg and Geneva, Cambridge and Rome, but not Atlanta," said Martin Marty, Robert W. Woodruff Visiting Professor of Interdisciplinary Religious Studies and an author of an upcoming Luther biography. "Now Atlanta is very much on the map--a place of pilgrimage for scholars, lovers of the art and music of the Reformation and admirers of historic books, thanks to the Kessler Collection."

The collection was established in 1987 when Richard and Martha Kessler donated their private collection of 49 Reformation imprints and manuscripts to Emory. That, combined with materials acquired in 1975 purchase of the Beck Lutherana Collection, formed the building blocks of Candler's Protestant Reformation collection.

Over the past 16 years, first through the efforts of Channing Jeschke, Pitts librarian when the Kessler collection was established, and now Graham, library director since 1994, the holdings have only increased in size and importance.

"About 15 to 25 percent of the holdings are not by Lutheran authors," said Graham, who graduated with a doctorate in Old Testament from Emory in 1983. "Instead they are by Roman Catholic opponents. It's not just a matter of listening to Luther and his friends; it's wanting to hear both sides of the debate."

While the image of purchasing rare books and commodities in dusty bookstores in the back alleys of Berlin is romantic, it's not quite accurate. Pitts has relationships with several rare book dealers in Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands. These dealers publish catalogs of new holdings perhaps six times a year.

Once the catalog is received, Graham and his staff check the library's holdings to see if there are any materials they don't have. Pitts then acquires what it wants, either directly from the dealer or at auction. Graham said the library spent about $125,000 in buying books and manuscripts last year.

While the majority of the collection is protected upstairs, there are many ways to access it. Scholars, of course, can view the material by request, and periodically selections from the Kessler collection are put on display in Pitts' Durham Reading Room. Through Dec. 9, eight Bibles dating from 1477-1550 are being shown.

Browsing through Pitts' Digital Image Archive is another way to sample the collection. Digitized pictures of thousands of woodcuts can be viewed with a simple mouse click, and the archive grows by about 50 images each week. Currently the archives numbers some 7,600 images, and materials can be searched for by call number (the library stores material by date and author; for example, "1518Luth" would be a 1518 publication by Luther), image (a lion, for instance) or scripture reference.

The middle of the fall semester is a time when the collection is particularly celebrated. Each year since the collection was created, Candler has celebrated Reformation Day on the Tuesday before All Saints' Day. This 16th Reformation Day was held Oct. 21 and focused on Bach as a Lutheran theologian and Charles Wesley as a Methodist theologian. The celebration featured music from University organist Timothy Albrecht and the concert choir, along with a lecture and a musical play by Wesley scholar S.T. Kimbrough.

Graham said attendance for this year's event was higher than ever. "The day allows us to bring together Reformation theology and some of the finest of Western music, he said.