Nation’s oldest bibliophilic society visits Lilly’s Grolier exhibit

Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.” The poetry of Browning, Longfellow and Keats. The Book of Common Prayer. Gibbons’ “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” And the works of Shakespeare, of course.

Book lovers are likely to recognize many of the titles on display in the main gallery of the Lilly Library, home to IU’s rare books, manuscripts and special collections. The exhibit displays 100 books famous in English literature, a checklist created when New York-based bibliophilic society The Grolier Club exhibited the books back in 1903.


Shakespeare’s “Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies” is on display now at IU’s Lilly Library.

The Lilly’s collection includes first editions, earliest obtainable editions and significant editions of all but one of the books, which lies outside the library’s reach and appears likely to stay that way.

Only two copies remain of Sir Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur,” the last of which came onto the market more than a century ago, according to library director Joel Silver. Nevertheless, the Lilly’s exhibit does contain a facsimile of the 1485 first edition, so the 1903 exhibit appears in its entirety.

And while the Grolier exhibit is likely to draw book lovers of all sorts, it’s already garnered a visit from the very club for which the list is named. Members of The Grolier Club visited the Lilly recently, and spent time examining the library’s collections.

“We do trips in the United States and abroad each year as part of our program for members, and last visited the Lilly as a group in 1963,” Grolier Club director Eric Holzenberg said. “Joel gave us a great overview of the Lilly and a great introduction to their collections, and we spent the afternoon exploring various areas in depth. … We’re all very focused on the importance of the book as object, and find them interesting for all sorts of reasons — their history, provenance, beauty, historical significance.”

Club members wandered among the Lilly’s spacious rooms, listening to IU English professor and Audubon expert Christoph Irmscher discuss the library’s copy of “Birds of America,” investigating the behind-the-scenes collections and perusing the library’s assortment of tiny children’s books.

Silver recently showed an inquisitive guest around the exhibit, sharing fascinating details. For example, the Lilly’s copy of Shakespeare’s collected editions was published in 1623, only seven years after his death. About 230 copies exist, more than 80 of which are held by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. But all the copies contain variations due to their printing, meaning the Lilly’s copy is unique. Contrast that with the Lilly’s copy of “The Canterbury Tales.” Only about a dozen copies survive worldwide, so it’s very rare.

“It’s an honor to have the Grolier Club visit,” Silver said. “It’s interesting for the club’s members, since they seldom get to see so many of these books all together, and it’s also enjoyable to see them using the Lilly’s resources, as many conducted their own research while they were visiting.”

The links between the Lilly and the bibliophilic club will grow even stronger next year, when the Lilly expects to lend some of its children’s books to the club for an exhibit in New York.

The Grolier exhibit is on display through Aug. 24.

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