I’ve written about Ohio dealer/biblioclast Otto F. Ege in several blogposts (here and here in particular), but there is one chapter of his story that I haven’t written about in detail: his decades-long relationship with the Lima Public Library.
The Lima Public Library is a small but bustling center for reading and communing in the center of Lima, Ohio, about halfway between Toledo and Cincinnati in the western part of the state. It’s a small town in the middle of farm country. It’s a place where you would never expect to find an important collection of medieval manuscript fragments…but you’d be wrong. What follows is a unusual and fascinating chapter in the story of medieval manuscript connoisseurship in the United States.
In 1930, Lima librarian Georgie McAfee wrote to Ege after hearing him lecture, to propose an unusual scheme: the Lima Public Library would sell manuscript leaves as an agent for Ege, retaining a portion of the proceeds to benefit their Staff Loan Fund. The arrangement lasted for decades, continuing under the direction of Ege’s widow Louise after his death in 1951. Thousands of leaves were sold, and thousands of dollars were raised.
An extensive archive at the Library preserves decades of correspondence between McAfee and Ege in which she 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. He also wrote to promote new acquisitions: in early October, 1942, he told McAfee about “nine new leaves, the FINEST, Beauvais France, 1285 (will be sent shortly).” This was a reference to the Beauvais Missal, which his business partner, NY dealer Philip Duschnes, would purchase and dismember several weeks later.
Over the course of this partnership between business associates who became friends, McAfee and her staff occasionally purchased leaves themselves, some to keep at home 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.
Scholars have known about the Lima Public Library’s collection for years (see, e.g., S. Gwara, Otto Ege’s Manuscripts (2013), p. 22 and note 54). But I’m here to tell you a previously unknown part of the story.
In November of 2016, I heard a lecture at the Beinecke Library delivered by retired Yale University chemistry professor and Lima native Michael McBride in which he reminisced about his personal connection with the Lima Public Library and its leaf-selling business. The fact that Prof. McBride and his siblings own more than a dozen Ege-sourced leaves suggested that other Limans might have some of this material hanging on walls, stored in attics, or resting in trunks. With Prof. McBride’s help, I reached out to Gary Fraser, director of the Lima Public Library, and to their public relations director, Karen Sommer, who helped me arrange a two-day “antiques road show” event at the Library. In exchange for allowing me to photograph their leaves for my own records, I would happily provide information to owners about their material.
My visit to the Lima Public Library on May 30-31 was publicized on the Library’s website and Facebook page, through flyers distributed at a local church, and via this brief spot on the local TV news (“The hunt is on for illuminated manuscripts!”). Overall, the response was fantastic. Ten attendees brought in a total of thirty previously-unknown Ege leaves, including some from well-known manuscripts (at least to those of us who study Ege and his legacy). Here are a few of them (hover over or click on each image to see its caption):
Many of the owners had connections to the Lima Public Library, such as a
great-aunt or family friend who had worked there in the 1940s. Some spoke fondly of Miss McAfee’s “Closet Shop,” an antique store she ran for many years where, among other things, she continued to sell manuscript leaves. Even if they didn’t
know very much about their leaves, they knew they were precious, and they all appreciated learning more about them. 97-year-old Miss Evelyn (shown at left) brought in three leaves, including a lovely leaf from a mid-fifteenth-century Book of Hours (probably Gwara Handlist 151) that happened to include the feminine Latin phrase “famulae tuae” in the text of the Marian prayer “Obsecro Te.” She was very moved when I told her that that meant the book had been made for a woman.
Some of the owners mentioned that they had family members with leaves who had left Lima, and I hope to be in touch with some of those ex-pats in the coming weeks.
Ege’s relationship with the Lima Public Library created a pocket of manuscript aficionados in the middle of farm-country Ohio. It was a joy getting to know them.