Rare Books

The Rare Book Room in Preus Library is dedicated to the memories of of Karl T. Jacobsen (Class of 1902) librarian of Luther College from 1920-1949, and to J. C. M Hanson (Class of 1882) under whom Mr. Jacobsen worked at both the Library of Congress and at the University of Chicago.

What is a rare book?

There are many definitions of a rare book. At Luther College, the following criteria are used as guidelines to determine whether or not a book shall be added to the rare book collection:

  • Books having aesthetic, associational, or historical value
  • Old and contemporary examples of fine printing, binding and illustration
  • Books printed before 1700
  • English books printed before 1720
  • Norwegian books printed before 1750
  • American books printed before 1800-1850 depending on place
  • Autographed books (selected)
  • First Editions (selected)
  • Books which reflect the history and heritage of the College
  • Local imprints (books printed in Decorah)

What is in the Collection?

The Rare Book Room collection contains books from every subject field: philosophy and religion, all of the social sciences, the fine arts, language and literature and the sciences and technology. Included are books, periodicals, newspapers, manuscripts and broadsides. They range in size from a postage stamp size to large folio volumes, the smallest a Bible, the largest a facsimile edition of some of the plates from the elephant folio edition of Audubon’s Birds of America.

There are a few first editions of American and foreign authors: Willa Cather, Martha Ostenso, John Steinbeck, Richard Wright, O.E. Rolvaag, Bjornstjerne Bjornson, Henrik Ibsen, Sigrid Undset to name a few.

The collection contains one incunabulum (a book published before 1500). It is volume one of a Latin Bible edited by Nicholas de Lyra (died 1349?) whose famous commentary added much to the bulk and beauty of many early Bibles. A Nuremberg edition was used by Martin Luther. Luther College’s copy was printed by Johannes Petri and Johannes Froben at Basel in 1498.

The first substantial book printed from movable type was printed in Mainz, Germany in 1455. This work is known as the Gutenberg 42-line Bible. It was printed by Johan Gutenberg, Johan Furst and Peter Schoeffer. The Rare Book Room contains number 201 of a limited edition of 1000 copies of the facsimile edition published by Pageant Books in 1960.

Other Bibles housed here include an English Bible published in 1608 usually called the Geneva Bible or “Breeches” Bible; a copy of the first Danish Bible published in 1550; an Icelandic Bible printed in 1644; and an 1819 Danish Bible brought to America by Ole Johnson, a member of the group which sailed from Stavanger, Norway in 1825 on the ship Restauration.

Early hand-written works in the collection include two farm deeds to Norwegian farms. The earliest, written in 1459 by Anbiorn Hodolfson, is a deed to the farm of Aarhus in Borgstrand Otting, Voss. The second document is a parchment letter by Thorgjer Halvorsen Havarsgaard dated February 9, 1653, declaring the sale of 5/7 of the farm of Tollevsrud in Hallingdal, Norway. That letter bears three of the four original seals attached to thongs pressed into wax in turned wooden cups. The three seals still attached are those of the witnesses. Other hand-written manuscripts are a book of navigation narratives and tables by Hans Gundersen Lund written in Norwegian about 1840, a Chiffer Bog or arithmetic workbook by Morton Gundersen Lunn from 1802, and a late eighteenth century manuscript concerning ownership of the Sandbo farm in Hedemark, Norway.

Among the Reformation period writers represented by one or more works are Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, Johan Brenz, Wolfgang Musculus, Jean Calvin and Martin Chemnitz. Two copies of the funeral sermon preached by Johann Bugenhagen at the funeral of Martin Luther in 1546 have also been donated to the collection. The Lewis H. Beck Center for Electronic Collections at the Emory Libraries at Emory University has produced an English translation of the first edition of Johann Bugenhagen’s funeral sermon for Martin Luther. The translation is part of the Richard C. Kessler Reformation Collection. The translation is accompanied by an essay by Kurt K. Hendel about Martin Luther, focusing on the last years of his life and his death.

The Rare Book Room collection contains three examples of a curious art of book decoration known as fore-edge painting. The painting appears on the right edges of the pages when the book is opened to its title page; it disappears when the book is closed revealing gilt edges. These books are The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1821) by Isaac Watts, Aminta (1800), a pastoral play by Torquato Tasso, and Italy, a Poem (1836), by Samuel Rogers.

Books are also consigned to the Rare Book Room primarily because of their physical attributes. One significant example is a book compiled by Thomas Kingo entitled Den Forordnede Nye Kirke-Psalme-Bog which is bound in the dos-a-dos style. A dos-a-dos binding (in English, a back-to-back binding) shares one board between two opposing spines; the two books it contains are bound back-to-back, so that they open in opposite directions. When the book is shelved upright in the usual position, one spine faces the user; the other faces the back of the bookcase. Several accordion books have also been collected such as the New Album of Montreal Views which contains plates of historical photos of Montreal folded on a continuous strip.

The sciences are represented by such works as James Sowerby’s English Botany, 31 volumes; Thomas Say’s American Entomology, 3 volumes; and Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover’s translation from the first Latin edition of 1556 of Agricola’s De Re Metallica.

Books important to the history and heritage of Luther College also are found in the Rare Book collection. Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians, published in 1743 in Copenhagen, was the first book (image of title page, image of inside cover) accessioned into the Luther College Library. Several books were donated and autographed by Laur. Larsen, the first president of the College. The collection also includes books from the private libraries of early faculty members and various student clubs and societies.

Using Books from the Collection

These books are kept in a locked room because their value and/or rarity requires that they be preserved rather than be made available for open general use. Their use generally is limited to special needs of qualified researchers. Therefore, anyone wishing to use items from this collection should make prior arrangements.


For more information on the Rare Book Room collection, including gifts and tours, please contact:

Andi Beckendorf, Research & Instruction Librarian
Preus Library 207D
[email protected]