“Carrying and Transmitting the Essence of Our Humanity: The Lilly Library Celebrates Fifty Years”

IU Auditorium Lobby
November 11, 2010


Thank you, Breon [Mitchell], and thank you all for coming this evening.  It is really a great pleasure to see so many friends of the Lilly Library here this evening for this wonderful—and fitting—fiftieth anniversary celebration.

The Essence of Our Humanity

I hope our honored guest and keynote speaker will indulge me for just a moment as I borrow from some of his scholarship.  In Medieval times, as I understand it, illuminators used a number of techniques to gild manuscripts, but one in particular seems appropriate to tonight’s celebration.  After applying foundation material to the page, the artist would lean close to his work and breathe upon it.  The dampness of his breath would help the gold adhere.1

In many of these manuscripts, then, the breath of the artist has touched the page. Perhaps more than any other object, books carry and transmit the essence of our humanity. 

Rare Books and Measuring Time

This is what makes tonight’s celebration so very special.  Certainly, this celebration marks fifty years in the life of this wonderful library, but fifty years is measured differently when it comes to rare books.  It is measured in what is saved and what is lost. In those fifty years the library’s collection has expanded to include 400,000 books, more than 100,000 pieces of sheet music, and more than 7.5 million manuscript items in 1,700 named collections.  It is measured in generosity, beginning with the remarkable gift that J.K. Lilly, Jr. gave to the university in 1956 to form the core of this collection.

There are a number of families associated with Indiana University:  the Simons, the Glicks, the Krannerts, the Kelleys, the Jacobs.  Of these many friends and supporters of the university, it is fair to say that none has made a greater difference or shaped this institution more than the Lilly family.  We are delighted that Ted and Debbie Lilly could join us this evening, and we are deeply grateful for all that you and your family has done for Indiana University.

And that time is measured in the continuing life of those objects. These are not relics locked away to gather dust on an unseen shelf.  They are living objects, that—in their use—span the great distance of time between their creation and the present. 

It is essential, in my view, that the treasures of the Lilly Library remain directly accessible to the whole university community and beyond and never become a remote bank vault of old books:  to hold, to study, to contemplate—and perhaps to feel the breath of those ancient monks and scribes whose treasures we now hold. This is part of the vital role the Lilly Library plays in the educational and research missions of this university.

Growth and Evolution at the Lilly Library

At the dedication of the Lilly Library in 1960, keynote speaker Frederick Adams said that “[a] great library never stops growing” but that growth is not just expansion.  It includes maturation, integration, and direction.2  As director of the Pierpont Morgan Library, one of the finest libraries in North America, Mr. Adams would certainly have known. 

That growth and evolution can be seen not only in the size of the collections that I mentioned a moment ago, but also in the digital initiatives that the Lilly Library is undertaking, initiatives like the Digital Scriptorium, which will make available online images and relevant data from this very exhibition.  Like you, I have seen great advances in information technology over the past few decades—advances that eliminate barriers of space and time and give us increasingly more direct and immediate access to scholarly materials, to visual art, to recorded music, and to the world's rarest historical artifacts.

The advent of the age of digital humanities takes the treasures of the Lilly Library and the work of scholars who study them and makes them available digitally to the whole world, and in this way it democratizes scholarship.  This is a new page in the life of the book, and the Lilly Library is on that page. 

That this library has continued to grow and evolve so magnificently over the years is testimony to its dedicated leadership, starting with the direction of David Randall, the library’s first director, and including William Cagle, Lisa Browar, and Breon Mitchell, who began his tenure in 2001 and has brought to his position both dedication and care—and I do not use that term lightly—that continue to guide this library.  It is testimony to the highly skilled work of the library’s staff who catalog, clean, analyze, display, and preserve these materials. And it is testimony to the outstanding scholars who come from around the world to study these objects and unlock their mysteries.

Introducing Christopher de Hamel

Tonight it is my great pleasure to introduce just such a scholar. Christopher de Hamel is one of the world’s leading authorities on medieval manuscripts.  That is why, in 2006, he was invited to inventory and evaluate the Lilly Library’s collection of these precious objects.  Out of that visit, this magnificent exhibition as well as the beautiful exhibition catalogue—Gilding the Lilly—have grown.

Would you please help me congratulate Dr. de Hamel, Breon Mitchell, and the Lilly Library staff on the depth, breadth, and sheer beauty of the exhibit and the exhibition catalogue?

Dr. de Hamel joins us from University of Cambridge where he was elected the first Donnelley Fellow Librarian of Corpus Christi College. He also serves as a member of the Faculty of History.  He holds one doctorate from Oxford and one from Cambridge and has been awarded honorary doctorates by St. John’s University in Minnesota and the University of Otago in New Zealand, one of his alma maters.

He has served as Chairman of the Association for Manuscripts and Archives in Research Collections; has been a Visiting Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford as well as J. P. R. Lyell Reader in Bibliography at Oxford; and Sandars Reader in Bibliography at Cambridge.

Prior to his appointment at Cambridge, he was responsible for all valuations and sales of illuminated manuscripts at Sotheby’s.  During his tenure there from 1975 to 2000, he published descriptions of approximately 10,000 manuscripts from the fall of the Roman Empire to the high renaissance and beyond.  He also oversaw the private sales of what was then the most expensive book transaction in history and the most expensive book ever sold. 

His service to his profession is extensive.  He has been a member of the Visiting Committee for Manuscripts at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York; a trustee of the Cambridge Project for the Book Trust, and of the Handwriting of the Italian Humanists Trust; and a member of the advisory boards of a number of prestigious institutions.  He is an Honorary Member of the Society of Scribes and Illuminators; an Honorary Fellow of the Calligraphy and Lettering Arts Society; and a fellow of both the Royal Historical Society and of the Society of Antiquaries. 

He has lectured in some of the most acclaimed museums and libraries around the world, and his many publications give a glimpse of his areas of expertise.  One reviewer describes the “extensive and specialist knowledge” de Hamel brings to his work The History of Illuminated Manuscripts and another, the wit, elegance and erudition of the writing.3,4  His The Book:  A History of the Bible is “authoritative and informed,” according to one reviewer, and his Scribes and Illuminators effectively demonstrates his personal connection to the process of manuscript production, according to another.5,6

One publication stands out among many.  In 2005, Dr. de Hamel published The Rothschilds and their Collections of Illuminated Manuscripts, the result of twenty-five years of research on a family of enormous wealth that included many collectors. Such an endeavor clearly demonstrates Dr. de Hamel’s tireless dedication to uncovering the lives behind and within the manuscripts he studies.  He breathes new life into these stories and quickens these manuscripts just as those illuminators did so many years ago.

Would you please help me welcome Christopher de Hamel?

Source Notes

  1. de Hamel, Christopher.  Scribes and Illuminators: Medieval Craftsmen Series. Toronto:  U of Toronto P, 1992.  See especially page 60.
  2. Adams, F.B.  “Growth Is Essential to a Great Library.”  Indiana Daily Student: 4 Oct. 1960. Page 4.
  3. Gray, Vic. Review of A History of Illuminated Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel.  Leonardo 20.1 (1987):  100-1.  Page 101.
  4. Mayo, Hope. Review of A History of Illuminated Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel.  The Library Quarterly 57.2 (April 1987):  210-3.  Page 211.
  5. Elliott, J.K.  Review of The Book:  A History of the Bible by Christopher de Hamel.  Novum Testamentum 45.2 (April 2003):  198-200.  Page 198.
  6. Stanton, Anne Rudloff.  Review of Scribes and Illuminators by de Hamel.  Libraries & Culture 29.4 (Fall 1994) 464-5.  Page 465.