A good librarian can make magic by bringing together the right book and the right reader. That is what happened the day Paul Saenger put a book of religious music not performed in centuries into the hands of Calvin Bower.
Around the year 1300, Portuguese monks had handwritten the music they sang as they filed into chapel for prayers.
Bower, a professor of medieval studies at the University of Notre Dame, opened the book and stared at the archaic musical notations. Then Bower did something remarkable.
“He started to hum,” Saenger said. “Calvin is one of a handful of scholars in the world who can read that notation. It probably was the first time it had been performed in 500 years.”
The manuscript exemplifies the sort of object that Saenger, curator of rare books and manuscripts at the Newberry Library, has been acquiring through an unusual partnership with Midwestern universities.
Finding such a book intact today is rare, because as other musical notation systems came into use, the books with the old system got cut up, their pages used for bindings.
“Things like this book have really become popular as collectibles,” said Saenger. “Prices on rare books and manuscripts have increased dramatically in the last couple of decades.”
With money tight on campuses, it is increasingly difficult for university libraries to persuade administrators to enlarge collections when a single volume can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
That is where the Newberry, an independent research library, steps in. Under the partnership run by Saenger, when a desirable rare book comes up for sale, the library puts up two-thirds of the money and one of the schools one-third. The Newberry keeps the book eight months a year; the school can have it for four.
The partnership plan started with Notre Dame in 1995, Saenger said, when a professor there saw a rare book in a catalog and called the Newberry. He wondered if the library might buy it.
“I asked him if Notre Dame could come up with a third of the cost,” Saenger said. “It was an idea I had been kicking around on my own for years, because the Newberry certainly doesn’t have funds to buy everything we want, either.”
Kent Emery, a professor of medieval studies at Notre Dame, was fascinated by the suggestion.
“It is an inspired idea,” Emery said. “It means colleges have a way to acquire books for hands-on research they never could afford before.”
Over 12 years, the partnership has acquired 23 books and manuscripts at a cost of more than half a million dollars.