Works by Copernicus and Newton : A Rare Treasure of Books at SDSU

Times Staff Writer

Locked in a safe on the third floor of the Malcolm A. Love Library at San Diego State University is a storehouse of interesting treasure.

Take a trip to the 13th and 14th centuries and see some of the first books ever printed after the discovery of moveable type by Johann Gutenberg in Germany. A lot of care and crafting has been abandoned along the way to the computer age.

Take a look at what may be the oldest math book in circulation. Either someone had more time for craft and precision back then, or the denizens of 1482--a decade before Columbus discovered America--operated on a higher plane.

Take a look at a book by Nicolaus Copernicus, in mint condition; at one by Isaac Newton; at another by Galileo Galilei; at still another--autographed, no less--by Eugene O'Neill.

Take a look at all the riches in the Special Collections section of the SDSU library, which has been at the school since 1971.

Ruth E. Leerhoff, section librarian, is reluctant to assess the dollar value of such a collection. She confirms, however, that it's easily in the millions. The collection of 30,000 rare pieces--books, manuscripts and artifacts--soon will have an expanded, climatically controlled corner on the library's fifth floor.

Because of the age and sensitivity of many of the items, regulated heat and temperature are sought-after luxuries, ones the collection hasn't had but which its sponsors say it richly deserves.

Louis Kenney is a board member of Friends of the Malcolm A. Love Library, which buys many of the items found in the collection. SDSU allocates some monies for Special Collections, but many of its holdings come from Friends of the Library (its more informal name), which buys most of its books through dealers around the world.

Kenney spent a recent afternoon poking through the shelves, picking up books that may be rare if only for sculpted covers and bindings or dust jackets that remain--in some cases after hundreds of years--in impeccable condition.

Most of the "users" of the collection are hobbyists, fellow collectors, researchers, artists or, he said, humanists looking for a good read.

"Engineering students don't come in too often," he said with a chuckle. "Neither do business students. Maybe they both should ."

Murney Gerlach, a university archivist who assists Leerhoff with the collection, has a bright, inquisitive personality with an eye toward detail and rarity. He spends hours tracing the origins of the collection's vast holdings and is drawn to a book by Copernicus.

"This book more or less shattered our conception of man and the world," he said. "Everyone thought that the (world) was geocentric, but Copernicus introduced the concept of a heliocentric earth that revolved in a stationary orbit around the sun.

"Look at this drawing," he said excitedly. "This is an anvil coming down on a pile of rocks. The rocks somehow symbolize the Earth, and the detail in the drawing is just one example of the kind of craftsmanship found in these books. This book appeared in 1566."

Gerlach is most excited by the papers of Don Antonio Urrutia de Vergara, spanning the period from 1575 to 1754. They consist of records found after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire. They contain nothing less than remnants of a lost society--land deeds, farm holdings and pictographs that bring to life the artistry and brilliance of the Aztecs.

"I'm sure this is something the Mexican government would love to have back," said Leerhoff, hastening to note that such a return has not been demanded.

A Glimpse of Life

"So much of the Mexicans' treasure has been taken out of the country over the years," she said. "I wouldn't blame them for wanting to hold onto something like this. It's their history. Why wouldn't they want to keep it?"

Gerlach said many of the Aztec papers have "obvious value," containing as they do insight into the economic system, societal histories, how families stayed together or came apart.

They are no less valuable, he said, than the series of "indentures" found in Special Collections--contracts between two parties dating as far back as pre-Revolutionary England. These include signatures by British royalty and the kind of beautifully crafted handwriting and script that made the Declaration of Independence a noble document in more ways than one and the penmanship of John Hancock a standard for the ages.

Most of these date from the time of Henry VIII in the mid-16th Century to the reign of Queen Victoria, from 1837 to 1901, Gerlach said. Another prized item is the "Encyclopedie, ou dictionnaire raisonne des sciences, des arts et des metiers," which may have been, Gerlach said, the first encyclopedia in Western civilization.

"People like Voltaire and many of the French humanists contributed to it," Kenney said. "They may have begun the French Revolution in people's minds long before it actually took place."

"This book is full of exquisite plates and drawings," Gerlach said. "Here, look at this--the fortification of a fort. Look how elaborate the detail is. Here's a plate depicting dressage, the art of parading a horse in a horse show. The drawings are incredibly intricate."

The encyclopedia was not a hit with the French government of 1751 to 1772, which objected to the book's less-than-flattering descriptions of God and kings and churches honoring both.

Special Collections also features first-edition books by many great writers, including Eugene O'Neill, E.M. Forster and William Faulkner. Many of these are autographed.

It features a valuable collection of orchid picture books; the prose of science fiction writers; the writings of California feminist Tish Summers, a past president of the National Organization for Women; treatises on the arts in San Diego, and a healthy collection of local military writing.

At the very least, the musty confines of Special Collections is home to any number of aspiring genealogists who may want to trace, say, early maps of the Republic of Ireland.

The one thing the section does not want to do, Leerhoff said, is compete. Potential donors bringing books or manuscripts dealing with modern science are often steered toward La Jolla and UC San Diego, which offers in its collection the works of a handful of Nobel Prize winners, including Jonas Salk.

SDSU's Special Collections is by no means as awe-inspiring as that of the Huntington Library near Pasadena, nor is it particularly eager to reach parity with such a magnificent institution. But its offerings are growing, Leerhoff said, not only in quantity but also in quality.

Maybe you own something worthy of such a collection.

As Gerlach said, "We collect anything ."

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