LIMA — As the Christmas shopping season gained steam in December 1955, The Lima News suggested a unique gift for “that ‘right’ person on your shopping list.”
“Such a gift — that records and reflects the learning, religious and social state of Europe from the 12th century until the 16th — is available right here at the Lima Public Library,” the News wrote on Dec. 6, 1955. “And it actually is a page of history — in fact many pages from rare medieval manuscripts, suitable for framing in glass, so that both sides of the ‘leaf’ may be enjoyed.”
That such a unique gift would be available in Lima was the result of a no-less unique arrangement worked out 25 years earlier between a Lima librarian and a Cleveland college professor and book lover.
In 1930, Kentucky native Georgie McAfee was librarian at Lima’s Carnegie Library on the corner of McDonel and Market streets while Otto Ege was a professor of art at the Cleveland School of Art.
Ege also was a collector. He had spent the years before and after World War I collecting damaged or partial medieval manuscripts, some dating to the 1200s, many of which had been produced by monks. The lushly illustrated books printed on vellum (calf skin) or parchment (sheep skin) were mostly books that were used during church services — Bibles, psalters (collections of the Psalms), Books of Hours (personal prayer books), missals (books containing texts of the Mass), brevaries (prayer books used by priests) and so on.
To the horror of book lovers, Ege dismantled the books and sold the pages individually. In an article titled “I Am a Biblioclast (book breaker)” in the March 1938 issue of Avocations, a hobby and leisure magazine, Ege defended the practice. “Surely to allow a thousand people ‘to have and to hold’ an original manuscript leaf, and to get the thrill and understanding that comes only from actual and frequent contact with these art heritages, is justification enough for the scattering of fragments,” he wrote. “Few, indeed, can hope to own a complete manuscript book; hundreds, however, may own a leaf.”
After hearing Ege lecture, McAfee, who had been Lima librarian since 1924, wrote to him to propose an unusual scheme. “I am coming to you with a suggested plan,” McAfee wrote in a letter dated Sept. 30, 1930, “and I am going to ask you to tell me whether or not it is feasible.”
The library staff recently had started a staff loan fund for educational and professional advancement, McAfee explained. “A committee from the staff has asked me to write to you to find out if you would like, or be willing for the staff to put on an exhibit and sale of your manuscripts here in the library during November and December, and whether you would allow a discount or commission on the sales.” The commission would benefit the staff loan fund.
Ege quickly agreed to the plan, writing on Oct. 1, 1930, that he would send “some of my best manuscripts and incunabulae (a book or pamphlet printed in Europe before 1501) for exhibition purposes during November and December.” Ege wrote that he would also send “approximately one hundred assorted leaves, large and small for sale. These will be largely manuscript leaves with the exception of about fifteen or twenty of early printing.” The library committee, Ege continued, could retain a percentage of the sale price, concluding, “I think your project is a splendid one.”
And so, according to a story in the Nov. 9, 1930, edition of the News, “a collection of hand-illuminated manuscripts, made by patient monks in the middle ages” and “valued at thousands of dollars” went on exhibit at the Lima Public Library.
“The parchment pages, many of them more than 1,000 years old, are covered with delicate lettering or music notes, the initial letters in gold, blue, red and green, still fresh because the colors were made with crushed jewels and the gold was mixed only with honey,” the News wrote. “There are French, German and Italian manuscripts, psalters, copies of the Koran and old Persian and Turkish law books. A page from the famous Gutenberg Bible also is shown. Some of the smaller but no less beautiful manuscript pages will be sold to Lima art lovers for a circulating educational loan fund for the benefit of the staff.”
On March 12, 1939, the News reported that “interest increases rather than decreases” in the pages. “The Lima staff has a larger clientele for this unusual item than any other single group in the United States. In addition, stimulating acquaintances have been made with unusual personalities all over the country. Commissions on sales are used for the Scholarship Fund. Since November 1930 the staff has sold 822 leaves valued at $3,624.50.”
McAfee and the library’s “splendid” project continued into the 1960s. McAfee retired from the library in 1950 and died in 1981. Ege died in 1951, but his widow, Louise, continued supplying the library with leaves. According to a United Press story from Dec. 7, 1951, Ege’s will “showed he had amassed about $45,000 worth of valuable fragments. The appraisers who put values on the relics said their figures were probably ‘absurdly low.’”
A filing cabinet in the basement of the Lima Public Library preserves the decades of correspondence between the McAfee and Ege. Lisa Fagin Davis, an expert on medieval manuscripts, wrote of Ege’s relationship with the library in an April 2017 blog post.
McAfee, Davis wrote, “would write to request leaves of particular manuscripts to sell, and he would reply with notes about what was available. When she once wrote to insist that, because of slowing sales, the library would voluntarily reduce their commission, Ege responded by insisting that they continue to retain one-third of the proceeds.
“Over the course of the partnership between business associates who became friends, McAfee and her staff occasionally purchased leaves themselves, some to keep and others for the library’s collection. As a result, the Lima Public Library currently owns more than 75 manuscript leaves, including one of Ege’s ‘Fifty Original Leaves’ portfolios, making it one of the largest leaf collections in a U.S. public library.”
Reach Greg Hoersten at email@example.com.