Urban spelunking: Treasures of MPL's Krug Rare Books Room
Even if you climb the stairs up to the second floor of the Milwaukee Public Library's Central Library you might miss the Krug Rare Books Room.
When you reach the stop of the staircase, the room – which appears dark through the smoky glass even when the lights are on – is behind you.
Inside – in a 5,839 square foot area that is kept at 68-70 degrees Fahrenheit and 40-50 percent relative humidity – are more than 15,000 rare items, including books, artwork, periodicals and other items, from the 6x6 millimeter "Die Kleinsten Bucher" series book to Audubon's 435 large Birds of America prints.
The oldest item is a page from a 1240 Vulgate Bible, and some of the most compelling are works that are part of Milwaukee history, like Harley-Davidson motorcycle manuals and the earliest editions of "The Settlement Cook Book."
The room's low-profile character is a remnant of an old approach to rare book rooms, says Mary Milinkovic, arts and special collections coordinator at Milwaukee Public Library.
"For a time the whole Special Collections and Rare Book world, not just this library, the main goal was preservation," says Milinkovic. "It just wasn't felt that there was any need to have that information generally. Some of it was just a security thing, you don't advertise something like that, and again that has shifted.
"So okay, there is access to these materials, but we won't promote them. Now that is shifted and MPL with it. We want to provide access, and we're making sure everything is in our card catalog. There's even a part of the catalog that can take you to a list of rarities. We have the Richard E. and Lucile Krug Educational Series, we have speakers come in and they are talking about either history or sociology or something that is tied into a collection of rare materials."
But that began to change in 1953, when the library's scattered rarities were pulled together into the rare books room – formerly located on the first floor – says Fine Arts/Rare Books Librarian Patricia DeFrain.
"Prior to the '50s there were different departments that had maybe a few rare books that they kept secure, but there was no one room where everything was," DeFrain says. "They were accessible at that time, but separate ... little bits of them everywhere all over the library.
"And the reason (the rare book room) happened is the vision of City Librarian Richard E. Krug. He was our City Librarian (from 1941 to '83) ... and he thought it would be good to have one room that would be secure where this could all be kept."
The current room was opened in 2001 – with financial support from Krug's widow – and named in honor of the late city librarian.
On a recent visit, DeFrain and Milinkovic were excited to show off some of their favorite items in the collection, which – though accessible to the public by appointment – is still kept behind glass for safety and preservation reasons.
Here are some of the gems in the Krug Rare Books Room:
Arkham House collection – "This is an example of one of our special collections," says DeFrain. "This is the Arkham House Collection, a Wisconsin publishing company in Sauk City that was started by August Derleth, the highly prolific Wisconsin author. He was trying to preserve the work of H. P. Lovecraft, but they also branched out to do other horror, occult, science fiction kinds of things. We put this display together because of the season, you know, the Halloween season, because they've got some interesting covers."
"They were still publishing, as far as we know, through 2006. And I would say we have several hundred," adds Milinkovic. "We probably have one of the most complete collections that there are."
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili – "This is not quite the oldest book in our collection, but it's close. It is the 'Hypnerotomachia Poliphili' from 1499," says DeFrain. "Someone unknown rebound it, probably at the turn of the 20th century, but the pages are all from 1499. It was considered the most beautiful book of the Renaissance, it was the first to integrate pictures in text and the typography is beautiful. ... There's architecture, I think agriculture, economic principles, women's rights. ... There is a lot of stuff woven into it."
Gutenberg Bible facsimile – "This is a facsimile, a really nice facsimile, of the Gutenberg Bible," says DeFrain. "It's similar in size and weight and coloration. This isn't hand-painted but the original would have been. Anyone who ordered a Gutenberg Bible would get the pages with the black print. Then whoever bought it would have to hire an artist to illuminate it and do the drawings. This is a facsimile of one particular copy. It's considered a very nice facsimile.
Page from Vulgate Bible – "This is the oldest piece of paper in our collection, it's from 1240," says DeFrain. "It's a page from a Bible written in Latin 200 years before the printing press was invented. It is its part of a portfolio that was put together in 1923 with one page each from a lot of famous books. This is something you don't see any more on the market, but back then, we would like to think that these books were in bad shape. Instead of not using them at all, they put them into these portfolios. So other people have the same portfolios, but they have different pages from the books."
The Smallest Books in the World – "Although this is no longer true, this is called 'The Smallest Books in the World,'" says Defrain, pointing to a small box holding some tiny books, about the size of my thumbnail. "One of them has 'The Lords Prayer,' one has 'I Love You' in nine languages, one has 'The Olympic Oath' and 'The Oath of Freedom.' You kind of need a magnifying glass to read the print. They were made in Mainz, Germany, but I have recently read about books that are even smaller than this. You almost need the tweezers to pick them up. Even with the tweezers, it's difficult to open them.
"This is just an example of a curiosity of a book art. Really not practical; nobody's going to really learn much from these because they can't really see it, but it's fun to look at.
Double fore-edge book – This is "The Light of the World" by Edwin Arnold from 1891. This is called a double fore-edge book. From the outside it just looks like a nicely bound old book, but if you do this," says DeFrain, bending the book's pages to reveal a painting of a Connecticut scene along the edge – "you'll see it has a watercolor. And this is called a double fore-edge book because if you turn it around, there's a different one. This is an example of the book arts. The book itself is a normal (not especially valuable) book, but I'm sure there are books with double fore-edge that would be valuable, even if they weren't double fore-edge."
Gugler Lithographic Co. albums – "We have 55 sample books that they gave us," says Milinkovic, referring to the long-lived and influential Milwaukee printer. "It's just page after page of stationery and can labels. (Here) is a 1942 transit map (of Milwaukee)."
"I like this one," says DeFrain, pointing to a label that reads, "Creamed Golden Corn, It's Palatable!"
"I think they did more stationery earlier on. A lot of labels. Some maps. People get a kick out of looking through it. Who wouldn't want to look at a West Bend White Corn label?"
Our Mutual Friend – "This is something we love to show. When Charles Dickens was publishing in England, a lot of people couldn't afford to buy a whole book," says DeFrain. "They issued them in serial parts, and there were lots of advantages to doing that. It meant the publisher could start getting profits right away, the author could get profits before the book was done and the working man could afford to buy a book every month or so. He might not be able to buy the whole book, but he could afford to buy the serial parts. So this is 'Our Mutual Friend' by Charles Dickens. It started in October 1864. There are 19, but 20 in all, with volumes 19 and 20 published together.
It's one of my favorite things in this collection."
Romeyn B. Hough's "American Woods" – "The author actually invented the tool to make each one of those thin cuts (of wood)," says DeFrain, flipping through pages with three super-thin shavings of wood to show the grain of each type.
"Each one of those books is unique because each one has a separate scraping of wood," adds Milinkovic. "Some of (the woods) are close to extinction."
Kaleidoscope – "I believe we have a complete collection of Kaleidoscopes, from 1967 to '71. Somebody did the index for just the first volume," says DeFrain.
"We always save local periodicals and preserve them, even if they don't make it into rarities. That's a priority – something of local interest. The librarian just recently gave me these issues, and it's nice to share them."
Audubon Birds of America prints – "We just brought out an example of one of the Audubon prints," says DeFrain, showing a gorgeous print of birds on a tree branch. "It's life-size.
"Mr. Krug got them for us by asking somebody from the Schlitz Brewing Company to buy them for us. He was very persuasive. They used them as kind of educational projects; they framed, trimmed them and took them around to schools. I've run into people that remember them hanging in their schools. But then they realized that this isn't the best way to preserve them. They're not supposed to be trimmed. They're not supposed to be framed; they're supposed to be flat and secure in storage.
"In '68, Northwestern Mutual Life gave Mr. Krug a donation to clean them up and store them properly. At the time we had a refrigerated storage case that they were in. Ever since '68, they've been stored very well. We have the complete birds, which is 435 (prints) and the complete mammals which is 150 (prints).
"Northwestern Mutual Life made their calendar from these. They used to borrow a dozen every year and give us some copies of the calendar. But then eventually, a couple years ago, they said, 'let's just take good pictures of all of them.'"
A Book of Autographs – "Now we'll show you one of the greatest treasures," says DeFrain, taking me behind the glass to see a gigantic volume sitting on a reading stand. "You know there are some monuments (out on Wisconsin Avenue) and one is called 'The Victorious Charge.' They needed the money to finish it. So a woman named Lydia Ely, a local philanthropist and artist – she was very instrumental in getting the Veteran's Home (built) – her idea was let's send of these little slips of paper to all these famous people, and they will return them. We will bound all these little papers into a beautiful book, and we will auction off the book and someone will buy it for enough money to finish off the statue."
A similar approach was used to raise money for the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty in the early 1880s.
The book is quite incredible, both as a piece of Milwaukee history and for the variety and quality of the signatures it contains. Divided into thematic sections – authors, musicians, politicians, architects, artists, actors, etc. – each page has a number of the smaller sheets that were returned to Ely pasted on.
Some musicians wrote little bits of music. Artists drew small pictures, poets wrote verse.
Among the roughly 2,200 signatures are those of Grover Cleveland, Teddy Roosevelt, William McKinley, Woodrow Wilson, Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, Thomas Edison, Buffalo Bill Cody, Maxfield Parrish and Frederic Remington, to name but a varied few.
"This one's my personal favorite," says DeFrain, "Liliʻuokalani the last queen of Hawaii, in Hawaiian and English."
"Captain Frederick Pabst bought it," she says. "He paid $800 for it. They finished the statue. We got his library when he died, so that's why we have it."
"Sometimes specialists come through," says Milinkovic, "we had a poet here for our poetry series, who came in and we were having an open house. She went through the writer's section and was just freaking out, because she had studied and knew these people."
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