Ice House

Some of the Rarest Books in the World Can Be Found in This Downtown Library

Exploring the treasures (kept in a vault!) in the Houston Metropolitan Research Center.

By Gwendolyn Knapp January 28, 2019 Published in the February 2019 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Book of Cosmography, 16th century

Behind a large caution sign on a locked door inside the Houston Metropolitan Research Center at Houston Public Library’s Julia Ideson Building downtown, you’ll find the vault. It’s not filled with money or an arsenal, but it does contain the world’s most valuable currency and deadliest weapon—the written word. Researchers must apply to peruse the rare, often centuries-old books and other artifacts inside the room, which is kept at a crisp 60 degrees and cared for by preservation librarian Elizabeth Mayer. We asked her to share some of her favorite rarities with Houstonia readers, and she obliged.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 1969

There are only 2,500 copies of this loose-leaf folio edition of Lewis Carroll’s beloved children’s book, adorned with Salvador Dalí’s fever dream of phantasmagoric illustrations, hand-signed on the title page. But this isn’t the only Alice in Wonderland rarity in the collections held at the Julia Ideson Building. You’ll find 69 different copies of the book there, including an extremely coveted first edition with printing errors.

Book of Cosmography, 16th century

Back in the days of rampant blood-letting and imperialism, pop-up books weren’t just for kids. This Spanish cosmographía—a scientific text that combines geography, astronomy, and meteorology to study the universe—features movable, spherical charts that royal cosmographers used for navigation, cartography, calculating phases of the moon, and other top-secret, state-sanctioned activities that, for better or worse, helped them to colonize the New World.

Spirit of Prayer, 1825

“This is what we call a hidden fore-edge painting,” says Mayer. It isn’t visible when the book is shut thanks to a layer of gold leaf, but when the pages are fanned, an artwork, painted with the pages clamped at an angle, reveals itself—in the case of this theological book printed in London, a small masterpiece in the form of a pastoral castle scene. Typically, these paintings were commissioned by wealthy private collectors as a way of displaying wealth—think of them as bling for the pious, 19th-century Christian.

Antiphonarium, circa-1500s

Featuring over 100 hand-painted illuminations, this Spanish music book is one of the oldest items in the collection—and one of the earliest Western examples of handwritten music. It’s kind of like a coffee table–size hymnal, although the sheet music is inscribed with tonal intonations and Latin incantations instead of notes or lyrics. The pages are printed on vellum and bound inside heavy wooden boards and leather held together by metal embellishments, which did cause some damage to the pages before the library acquired this treasure. “We put plastic in,” Mayer says, “to prevent that.”

Quran, 14th century

The colors and details inside this 14th-century Quran believed to be from Baghdad, Iraq—vibrant blue and gold-leaf illuminations, intricately decorated endpapers that look like fine green silk speckled with even more gold—are astounding. “I do wish it were a bit bigger,” says Mayer, whose own hand is larger than the leather-bound text. “But my goodness, it’s gorgeous.” It’s also in remarkable condition, considering. “This is paper; it’s not any kind of animal skin.”

Book of Hours, 15th century

This French devotional—essentially a Latin prayer book—is one of the special collection’s most requested tomes, not for its text but for its artwork: dozens of richly pigmented, gold leaf–trimmed illuminations that depict everything from plump red strawberries to the wan Mother Mary breastfeeding her baby. “We keep tissue in here,” says Mayer, “so pigment doesn’t transfer onto the next page.”

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