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From cuneiform to comic books

NIU's Rare Books and Special Collections has it all

Lynne Thomas displays the personal papers of the late science fiction writer Fred Saberhagen. Saberhagen's widow donated the collection to the department of rare books and special collections at Northern Illinois University, where it is a part of the department's growing collection of research material on science fiction.
Lynne Thomas displays the personal papers of the late science fiction writer Fred Saberhagen. Saberhagen's widow donated the collection to the department of rare books and special collections at Northern Illinois University, where it is a part of the department's growing collection of research material on science fiction.

DeKALB – The 4,000-year-old clay tablet in Lynne Thomas’ hand was not much larger than a book of matches.

“It is one of the oldest forms of writing on record,” said Thomas, curator of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at Northern Illinois University Libraries. The cuneiform tablet, a relic of an ancient civilization between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Asia, served as a quarterly tax receipt for a taxpayer in ancient Mesopotamia.

The tablet is one of 140,000 items the department houses in the university libraries. The collection includes rare, fragile, obscure and valuable items that are handled separately from the library’s general collection. The items are stored in a controlled environment and are never circulated outside the department, but they are made available to students, researchers, tour groups, educators and members of the public.

Thomas estimates that 300 to 500 NIU students visit the collections each semester.

“The collection of manuscripts and facsimiles in Rare Books is essential to my teaching and research,” said Nicole Clifton, an associate professor in NIU’s department of English. “I regularly take undergraduate classes to look at reproductions of the manuscripts whose texts they are studying in modern editions in classes on Chaucer and Arthurian literature.”

Last year Clifton taught a graduate course in paleography and collaborated with Thomas on the acquisition of new materials for the collection.

”(Thomas) acquired two 17th-century French documents, a personal letter and a royal appointment, for students specializing in early modern French history to work on,” Clifton said. “Another student worked on a 12th-century set of manuscript fragments, on parchment, identifying the text and its likely provenance.”

One of the largest items in the collection is an enormous illuminated copy of the Ellesmere Chaucer, an elaborately-decorated manuscript of Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” that was created between 1400 and 1405. Only 250 copies of that edition were produced. Many scholars consider the Ellesmere Chaucer to be one of the most historically significant surviving manuscripts in the English language, according to the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee Libraries’ website.

“We bring this out 10 or 11 times each semester,” said Thomas. “It’s the book that made me want to become a rare book librarian.”

The rare books collection contains more than 10,000 volumes, but not all are ancient. Thomas is also responsible for more contemporary materials and regularly networks with authors, scholars and fans of various literary genres.

“We cover topics from medieval manuscripts to comic books,” she said. “I was hired in part because of my interest in popular culture and science fiction. We are the third-largest repository of dime novels, which were written from about 1860 to 1920.”

Last year, Thomas was responsible for the acquisition of the papers of late science fiction author Fred Saberhagen.

“Fred Saberhagen is very well known in the field of science fiction and fantasy literature,” Thomas said. “He is perhaps best known for the Berserker novels, a series of books about interstellar ruthless killer machines that predate the ‘Terminator’ films by 20 years. His Dracula sequence of novels, beginning with ‘The Vampire Tape,’ tells Bram Stoker’s Dracula from the vampire’s point of view and was published a year before Anne Rice’s ‘Interview with the Vampire.’”

An author’s papers generally include materials that document his or her life as a writer and include anything from drafts of short stories and novels to critiqued manuscripts and final submissions. Saberhaben was born in Chicago, and many of his stories were set in the Chicago area.

“I was at a convention in Wisconsin and she was just starting there (at NIU),” author Eric “E.E.” Knight said, recalling his first meeting with Thomas. “She approached me with the idea and told me how she was looking to turn NIU into a research collection for science fiction authors.”

Knight has also written a series of books about vampires, and has written a series about dragons. He is a 1987 graduate of NIU who now lives in Oak Park, and is one of 57 contemporary authors who have agreed to house their personal papers with NIU’s Special Collections.

“Maybe in 20 years someone will find it useful, especially if I get really famous,” Knight said. “Lynne Thomas is a very forward-looking individual. She thinks genre work is worthy of study, and she thinks it is important and has cultural value.”

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