Lilly Library’s History and Major Collecting Areas

On October 3, 1960, the Lilly Library was dedicated as a rare book and manuscript storehouse with its feature collection 20,000 books and 17,000 manuscripts acquired by J. K. Lilly. Mr. Lilly collected from the mid-1920s to 1966. When Lilly Library opened, Frederick B. Adams, Jr summarized J. K. Lilly’s collecting interests in his dedication speech:

Mr. Lilly’s books cover so many fields that it is difficult to believe that any one man’s enthusiasm could encompass them all. It is equally astounding that he was able to acquire so many books of such scarcity and quality in the short space of 30 years. Money alone isn’t the answer; diligence, courage, and imagination were also essential. The famous books in English and American literature, the books most influential in American life, the great works in the history of science and ideas–all these are among the 20,000 Lilly books in this building. **

When the Lilly Library was built, it was styled after many of the libraries of that period. Some noticeable differences are that the Lilly welcomes all visitors to muse and learn from the exhibits and books on display in the public areas. But also encourages those that wish to partake in the Reading Room services. With a simple registration and presentation of valid photo-identification, patrons can request to see anything from the Lilly’s collections.

J.K. Lilly’s collection and the University Library’s Department of Special Collections consisted of 75,000 books and 1,500,000 manuscripts. Now the collection has expanded to nearly 400,000 books, over 100,000 pieces of sheet music, and more than 6,500,000 manuscripts, but this does not include the Slocum Puzzle Collection of over 30,000 puzzles and 4,000 puzzle related books. The Lilly Library is full of treasures from the past and present.

Some of the collecting areas at the Lilly are:

  • The Bible collection including the most famous, Gutenberg Bible, to editions from the twentieth century to the first polyglot bibles. Similar to the other areas of collecting, the Bibles have been the focus of several reference works which creates scholarly, secondary sources that are valuable to research and scholars. The Lilly collected Bibles in many different languages and formats.
  • Children’s Literature is a collection of copious types of books which range from classics such as the works of Andrew Lang to The Swiss Family Robinson. The Lilly has curated one of the most interesting collections of children’s literature.
  • The Lilly collects in several areas regarding History and Literature. The major areas are British, American, European, and Indiana. Within these subjects, there are more specific collections devoted to particular authors like Ezra Pound  and James Whitcomb Wiley. The collections contain chapbooks, modern first editions, and books relating to cultural and literary movements.
  • Early printing is important part of the Lilly’s collections. It can help patrons understand the history of the book and its importance as a physical object. This area of the library’s collection has over 700 incunabula titles and is being added to on a selective basis primarily in the major works of the humanities and sciences.
  • Food & Drink collection is assembled around the collection of Mrs. John Talbot Gernon. This collection is primarily of American cookbooks, but also features British and European works on food and drink. The Lilly collects in modern and regional cook books, as well.
  • The Lilly’s collection in Medicine & Science showcases such preeminent works as De Humani corporis fabrica of Vesalius printed in 1543. One influential section of this collection is Ian Fleming’s library that is comprised of books on applied science and technology. Moreover, this collection is still being actively added to through donations and purchases.
  • Voyages & Exploration collecting areas were built up by obtaining the Bernardo Mendel Collection of materials about and from the Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch colonial empires and their expansion into the Western Hemisphere. Other European explorers and colonizers are also well represented. This collection has unusual materials such as maps and atlases depicting the development of geographical knowledge.

The Lilly Library is a rare book and manuscript library built on the philosophy that libraries are a collection of collections. These are not the only areas where the Lilly collects, but I wanted to highlight few of the ones I found to be exceptional. This brief overview is to help readers understand the nature of special collections and the work I will be performing during my internship.

If you are ever passing through Bloomington, Indiana, please visit the Lilly Library and its wonderful collections.


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