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Rarer Than Fiction

The quest for the Holy Grail. The legend of the Sword and the Stone. The founding of the Knights of the Round Table. These, and other tales, fill the illustrated pages of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. Malory, an English knight and Member of Parliament, wrote the book while imprisoned in the 1470s. Since then, the book has become one of the most well known collections of the heroic deeds and chivalric romances of King Arthur’s reign.

Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library owns a special 1838 edition of Le Morte d’Arthur—one of just three hundred ever created. Its handmade paper is fragile. Its edges are torn, interrupting the patterns of pears and leaves that line the pages’ borders. Some pages have come loose from the binding. The book creaks as I flip through its pages. But even in this condition, the book is valued at over $10,000.

Yet, until very recently, it sat in the shelves of the open circulation stacks of Sterling Memorial Library, available for anyone to check out. The book finally found its way to the Beinecke in September when junior Katie Stoops checked it out, for pleasure reading. One of the book’s first pages says that it is “of superior issue.” Intrigued, Stoops researched the book’s history. She learned that the Dutch paper the book was printed on makes it extraordinarily valuable. To make the paper, fine linens were steeped in water and dried between different coatings of salts, liquors, and acids of fermented rye or buttermilk. The linens were dried and re-wetted for weeks until they were white and sturdy enough for printing.

When she discovered the book’s value—a UK bookshop lists the volume on AbeBooks, an online book marketplace, for $11,711.10—she felt uncomfortable being in possession of a book with such “historical and monetary” value. After contacting Sterling Memorial Library, Stoops gave the book to Brian Kiss, who works in the circulation department there. Kiss quickly brought Le Morte D’Arthur to the Beinecke through the basement tunnel that connects the two libraries.

Stoops’s story is unusual, but not unheard of at Yale. About once a month, someone discovers a rare or very old book, potentially worth more than a thousand dollars, in the Sterling collection. It is then moved over to the Beinecke. Though old and fragile books still turn up occasionally, Kiss said that it’s uncommon for books as rare—and as valuable—as Le Morte d’Arthur to be found in the stacks, available for circulation.

In the past eleven years, Yale’s libraries have made an effort to move all rare and fragile books to the Beinecke. The library’s staffers combed through the Sterling stacks in 2004 as part of a major project to move thousands of books into their collection. Sarah Schmidt, head of printed acquisitions at the Beinecke, said they were looking for everything published before 1800. At any given time, four staff members and two students were assigned to the project. They methodically went through the library catalogue, finding the call numbers of rare books and collecting them from the stacks. George Miles, a curator of Western Americana at the Beinecke, says that he knows the project didn’t find all of the rare books, but “we felt pretty confident that we got most of them.”

In 2006, the former Cross Campus Library was renovated to become today’s Bass Library. During the construction, its books took up temporary residence in Sterling. Kiss helped re-shelve Sterling’s books to make room for the Cross Campus collection. It was, he says, “the first time in a long time that people had put their hands on literally every single book in the entire library.” While moving the books back to the newly opened Bass in 2007, Beinecke staffers were instructed to put aside any book printed before 1800 so that these books could be moved to the Beinecke collection. “They found tons and tons of stuff,” Kiss says. Many of the books were small, pages numbered with Roman numerals. Most were not written in English. Hundreds were transferred to the Beinecke.

Kiss explains that books printed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries circulating in Sterling were not part of the project. The scope of the transfer was already so large that including newer books in the search would have added an enormous amount of work for the librarians. That may be one reason that the Dutch paper edition of Le Morte d’Arthur, which was printed after 1800, remained in the stacks.

But books are moved to the Beinecke for reasons other than old age. Some are very fragile—for example, historical political pamphlets and booklets. Others might be particularly difficult to replace. Even so, if the Beinecke already has a copy of a rare book—even if it is worth a significant sum of money—multiple copies are allowed to stay in Sterling so that library patrons can access them. This could be a second reason why Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur was overlooked in Sterling: the Beinecke already held two older copies of Malory’s book when Stoops discovered the 1838 edition. However, because of its Dutch paper, this 1838 edition was even more valuable than its counterparts in Beinecke. Only by flipping through its pages could someone realize its significance.

So, some rare books still linger in Sterling. While Yale’s librarians want to make its collection of over fifteen million volumes available for research, they also want to ensure that the books are properly preserved. Though books in the Beinecke collection are not in open stacks, students and researchers can read them in the reading rooms. “The library system at large is looking to balance security with accessibility,” Miles says. “It’s one of the hardest questions that libraries face. They want to serve today’s readers as well as tomorrow’s.” As a result, books like the illustrated Dutch-paper Le Morte d’Arthur may continue to wind up on the desks of students who are unaware of their value.

“I would imagine,” Miles says, “that there will always be a few books in Sterling that we are surprised to discover are still there.”

Abigail Schneider is a sophomore in Trumbull College.

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