By Vivian Conan
Sep. 13, 2017: In 1961, Bronxville resident Leonard Kebler made a gift to the Bronxville Public Library of a page from one of the original Gutenberg Bibles. That page normally resides in a sealed display case outside the Children's Room on the second floor.
However, for the next two months until November 11, it will be on loan to the OSilas Gallery at Concordia College in conjunction with its exhibition Martin Luther and the Reformation. The exhibition also features important works of art that illuminated and propelled the Reformation, as well as texts and machinery that aided in the rapid spread of Luther's ideas. The exhibition is free and open to the public.
Kebler (1883-1961) was chairman of the board of Ward Leonard Electric of Mount Vernon (now Ward Leonard of Thomaston, CT). He was also an avid collector of rare books who made substantial donations to the Library of Congress and to Columbia, Harvard, and Brown universities.
Library board minutes tell us that on January 21, 1961, Kebler presented the Gutenberg page to the trustees of the village and library in an official public ceremony.
It's not clear what the library did with the page immediately after its acquisition, but at some point, it made its way into a carton in the library's attic. Old staff retired, new staff were hired, and the existence of the page was virtually forgotten.
Fast-forward to 1998, when preparations began for the library's renovation and expansion. A small portion of the collection was to be moved to temporary quarters on Kraft Avenue, which would be open to the public. The larger portion was to be put into storage. Art historian Jayne Warman, then on the library board, oversaw the packing and storing of the library's paintings. Going through cartons in the attic one day, she came upon the Gutenberg Bible page, printed in Latin, nestled in its own album.
After the library re-opened in 2001, the Gutenberg page was stored in the newly created Local History Room, which has controls for temperature and humidity. This room is accessible to the public only by appointment. The library board looked for a way to preserve the page while also allowing people to view it.
Enter the Friends of the Bronxville Public Library, who, in 2006, funded the construction of the special sealed case in which the page now resides.
Johannes Gutenberg printed the Bibles in Mainz, Germany, in 1455, with what was then a revolutionary technique in Western Europe: moveable type. (Moveable type had been used a century earlier in Asia.) Before that, books were either copied by hand or printed with wooden blocks. The letters that made up each page were carved into the block for that page and could not subsequently be used for another page or another project. With moveable type, letters could be reused, making the process faster and cheaper.
According to the Library of Congress, Gutenberg printed 180 copies of the Bible: thirty-five on parchment, the rest on paper. Only forty-nine copies are extant, twenty-one of which are complete.
While 180 might seem like a small print run, the Gutenberg Bible and the advent of moveable type changed Western civilization in the fifteenth century the way the Internet changed our lives 500 years later. Books, which had previously been affordable only to the rich, were now accessible to the masses. Pamphlets could be quickly printed and disseminated. Moveable type is what enabled Martin Luther to spread his ideas throughout Germany and Europe.
Those who enjoy historical novels might be interested in Gutenberg’s Apprentice, by Alix Christie, available in the library in book and CD-audio formats. Christie takes us to a world where printing was viewed with suspicion and considered a dark art. It was a world of political and religious plots, where a man obsessed with a dream had to experiment with metal alloys and ink formulas in secret.
The Gutenberg Bible page will be returned to its home in the Bronxville Public Library in November, where it will remain permanently on display.
Pictured here: OSilas Gallery, where a page of one of the original Gutenberg Bibles will be on display until November 11.
Photo by Staff