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October 29, 2002

Purdue libraries' oldest book turns 500

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Purdue University will celebrate its oldest book's 500th birthday this year.

The book, which is part of the Krannert Special Collection of Literature in Business and Economic History that is housed in the Krannert Building, actually contains Latin love poetry from three poets of the first century B.C. The book, which is untitled, was printed shortly after the invention of the printing press in the 1450s.

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"The book has nothing to do with economics," said Judith Nixon, management and economics librarian. "This just happened to be a treasure we found in a collection of books that was purchased in the 1960s."

Former Purdue professor Nathan Rosenberg was on sabbatical in 1964 when he discovered a collection of economics books, pamphlets and periodicals in the Museum Book Store of London. Purdue purchased the collection for $28,000 in 1965. Rosenberg sought the advice of John Houkes, Krannert's librarian, on purchasing the collection. Houkes said the deal was a steal. Today the collection is valued at more than $150,000.

"This book of Latin poetry has survived time well because of the fine printing job done in 1502 by Aldus Manutius, publisher of Aldine Press," said Nixon, professor of library science. "It's not a fancy book, but Purdue's oldest book is a symbol of how a book should be accessible to everyday readers."

During the 15th century, Manutius' competitors in Venice focused on business methods rather than the needs of individual printers or their patrons.

"Manutius showed how the benefits of printing could best be disseminated among the greatest number of people by producing books of convenient size and selling them at reasonable prices," Nixon said. "He is the publisher associated with the production of small, pocket-sized books – the equivalent of the modern paperback book."

Manutius (1450-1515) was Italy's finest printer and is considered the greatest editor, publisher and printer of the Italian Renaissance. He rediscovered masterpieces of ancient Greek literature and worked to place the best books into the hands of many readers. His mission was to bring the classics to the people, including the Latin love poems from Catullus, Tibullus and Propertius.

These three writers are important poets from their time, said Richard King, a Purdue assistant professor in the classics and Italian. Catullus wrote at the end of the Roman Republic, and the other two were writing during the reign of Augustus, the first emperor.

"This book reflects the typical grouping of these poets," King said. "It's not uncommon for these three to be grouped because of their thematic love connections."

King said the book presents a great opportunity for Purdue students, for example those in the Introduction to Classics course, to learn about Latin poetry and how books were made. Other Purdue scholars have used pieces of the collection to study Adam Smith, French history and the East India Company.

The half-a-millennium-old book shows some signs of its age. There are bookworm holes in the margins, however, the bugs' tunneling missed the text. The book's pages were made from rags, most likely linen. Evidence of the book's age also shows with the absence of a title page, typical for books of that era.

The front and back covers are printed with the Aldine Press colophon, the symbol of the publisher. A dolphin is wrapped around the shaft of an anchor. The dolphin represents speed, in reference to the speed at which the printed word could be distributed from the printing press. The anchor represents grounding in scholarship and the classics. The publisher's motto was "festina lente" – make haste slowly.

The book is bound in Moroccan leather and tooled in gold. The colophon also is embossed in gold on the front and back covers.

"For its age it is in marvelously good condition," Nixon said.

To preserve the book, and others in the special collection, the room on Krannert's second floor is maintained at 58 degrees Fahrenheit and 55 percent humidity.

The Krannert Special Collection of Literature in Business and Economic History is composed of more than 8,000 books, pamphlets and periodical titles. About 3,000 of the pieces were published between 1502 and 1875. The collection includes a first edition of "Wealth of Nations" by Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus' "Essay on the Principles of Population."

Nixon said this library is one of the country's finest collections of early economic history; surpassed only by the collections at Harvard, Columbia and Northwestern universities. Krannert's special collection also houses Victorian furniture that belonged to John Purdue, the founder of Purdue University.

Among the books purchased in 1965 are other Latin works of literature, such as a 1522 piece by Boethius and a volume by Benvenutus Stracca from 1553.

"It's interesting that there were these classical literary texts mixed in with a collection of hard economics," King said. "It makes you wonder what the collector was thinking. Were the books added for financial reasons or did the person's interests drive the collection?"

Anyone interested in viewing the 500-year-old book or the Krannert Special Collection of Literature in Business and Economic History should contact Nixon at (765) 494-2922 or

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: Journalists are invited to attend an invitation-only President's Council Open House from 2-5 p.m. on Nov. 8 at the Krannert Special Collection of Literature in Business and Economic History in the Krannert Building. The open house is part of President's Council Weekend. A publication-quality photograph of Judith Nixon with the 500-year-old book is available at

Writer: Amy Patterson-Neubert, (765) 494-9723,

Sources: Judith Nixon, (765) 494-2922,
Richard King, (765) 496-3254,

Related Web sites:
Purdue University Libraries

Judith Nixon, management and economics librarian, holds Purdue University Libraries' oldest book, which turns 500 years old this year. The book, which contains Latin love poetry, is part of the Krannert Special Collection of Literature in Business and Economic History in the Krannert Building. The book was purchased in 1965 as part of a special collection from London. (Purdue News Service Photo by David Umberger)

A publication-quality photograph is available at

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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