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Grinnell College moves Salisbury House library collection to campus

The “Kelmscott Chaucer,” printed on handmade paper by Kelmscott Press in 1896, contains many of Geoffrey Chaucer’s works and 87 woodcut illustrations by Victorian painter Edward Burne-Jones. 

College to preserve the collection, make it accessible to researchers and the public

GRINNELL, Iowa — Grinnell College has acquired and moved the Des Moines Salisbury House’s library collection of nearly 5,000 rare books and historic documents to the college’s Burling Library in Grinnell, Iowa.

Among the rare items in the collection are:

  • A leaf from the original printing of the Gutenberg Bible in 1455
  • Galley proofs of “Tales Told of Shem and Shaun,” the working title of “Finnegans Wake,” with handwritten edits by James Joyce; and a 1935 limited edition of Joyce’s “Ulysses” with original illustrations by Henri Matisse
  • Signed books and documents by King Louis XVI and the Marquis de Lafayette, Queen Elizabeth I, John Hancock, Joshua Reynolds, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, Cardinal Richelieu, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and many other renowned individuals
  • Correspondence between Salisbury House owner and builder Carl Weeks and prominent authors such as D. H. Lawrence and Ernest Hemingway.

“It is important to Grinnell and the Salisbury House Foundation board that this important collection remain in Iowa, so we are very pleased to house it in our Special Collections and Archives. The college will safeguard the integrity of the collection and make its contents more accessible to researchers, faculty, students and the general public,” said Mark Christel, Grinnell College’s Samuel R. and Marie-Louise Rosenthal Librarian. 

In addition, the college will perform any needed preservation work, catalog the entire collection, and begin to digitize unique items from the collection. The college is hiring a three-year project archivist who will assist with that work.

“We intend for the collection to foster a richer partnership between Grinnell and the Salisbury House,” Christel added. “In the next few months, Grinnell College will provide Salisbury House with a new archival-quality display case and a digital kiosk for its library that will enable visitors to view highlights of the collection on site. During events such as Salisbury House’s annual Shakespeare on the Lawn productions, for example, visitors to the historic home could view Shakespeare’s Second Folio in the display case and peruse the folio’s digitized pages of the featured play on the digital kiosk.”

“Salisbury House guests will have access to the Weeks family’s library collection that was never before possible,” said Kit Curran, executive director of Salisbury House and Gardens. “The archival-quality case and digital display Grinnell College is providing to Salisbury House will add an exciting, interactive and educational tool for our guests. They will be able to experience the magic contained in the words and illustrations inside the book covers.”

The addition of the Salisbury House collection has doubled Grinnell’s collection of books published from 1450 to 1500, said Chris Jones, Special Collections Librarian and Archivist of the college. 

“The collection contains books from so many eras that they demonstrate the evolution of book publishing in the West over hundreds of years,” Jones added. “For example, there are books from the 1400s that don’t have a title page because the title page had not been invented yet. We also have a volume in Latin by Thomas Aquinas titled ‘Catena aurea super quattuor evangelistas’ published in 1475. This hand-decorated oversized book is 18 inches tall with back and front covers made from pieces of wood. That’s why the front and back covers of books are now referred to as boards.”

Faculty members are starting to explore the collection in hopes of incorporating elements of it into their classes and research. 

“There are so many rare – and even one-of-a-kind – treasures in this collection that, on a first visit, one flits from book to book like a butterfly after nectar in a field of flowers,” said Jon Andelson, a 1970 Grinnell College graduate, professor of anthropology and director of the Center for Prairie Studies. “The potential uses of the collection by students and faculty are literally endless. The college is extremely fortunate to have acquired it.”

Andelson noted the collection contains many volumes about American Indians and the West, which he can use in his anthropology classes, as well as some rare religious imprints, which he may employ in his course about religion.

Sarah Purcell, a 1992 Grinnell graduate, chair of the history department and L.F. Parker Professor of History, said she looks forward to delving into the collection. 

“I have worked with librarians to use Grinnell College Special Collections as a laboratory for many different classes, and these new additions to the college collection will add a huge dimension to student learning about technology, printing, books, popular culture, and so much more,” Purcell said. 

“Students get to perform hands-on investigation on very rare books to learn about the intellectual and material development of knowledge over the past five centuries,” she added. “Nothing beats working with the real thing, and these additions to the collection really enhance student learning at Grinnell.”

About Grinnell College
Grinnell College, a private liberal arts college in Iowa founded in 1846, provides individually advised learning for intellectually engaged students to produce graduates who are prepared to navigate the world’s complexities and responsibly contribute to the common good. Grinnell enrolls 1,700 students from around the world, who earn B.A. degrees in a range of disciplines across the humanities, arts and sciences. Grinnell’s rigorous academic program and campus life emphasize excellence in education through free inquiry and the open exchange of ideas, a diverse community and social responsibility and action. More information about Grinnell college is available at

About Salisbury House & Gardens
Salisbury House & Gardens is a private, nonprofit organization governed by the Salisbury House Foundation. Located in the Salisbury Oaks Neighborhood in the heart Des Moines, Salisbury House & Gardens is a historic house museum that is open to the public and welcomes thousands of guests each year for its cultural, historical, educational and social events. Completed in 1928 for Carl and Edith Weeks, the country estate is modeled after the King’s House in Salisbury, England. The 42-room English manor house, at 4025 Tonawanda Drive in Des Moines, is filled with valuable collections from the Weeks family estate, including paintings, sculpture, textiles, rare books and documents, and decorative arts.

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