At the September First Thursdays festival, I had the opportunity to take a brief tour of the Lilly Library, and as an English major and requisite book nerd, I’ll admit I behaved like a little kid at Disneyland, wanting to dart around taking pictures with and fangirling over different items (I’ll admit I swooned a bit at a first edition of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway). Although the Lilly has several major exhibitions being shown at the moment, including the Frankenstein 200 exhibit, letters of James Baldwin, materials from Kurt Vonnegut, and an insanely fascinating collection of animal-themed objects, including books bound in kangaroo and ostrich skin, I was most drawn to a display found in the Ball Room just off of the famous Lincoln Room, known as “Ladies of the Lilly: Collectors Elisabeth Ball and Ruth Adomeit.”
The first thing you see upon entering the Ball Room is a large glass case filled with the tiniest books imaginable. Seriously: think about a tiny book, then imagine it even smaller, and you might have an idea of how tiny these things are. The most incredible thing about these books is that most of them really do have entire books printed in them, down to the sentence – you’d just need a really strong magnifying glass to read them. (Talk about eye-strain!)
Although these books are complete novelty items and are fun to look at if not actually read, reflecting on them, I couldn’t help but think about how so often throughout history noteworthy items produced or consumed by women have been diminished and marginalized. The collectors featured in this exhibit, Elisabeth Ball and Ruth Adomeit came from very different backgrounds (one was a member of the Ball family – yes, the glass jar Balls – and the other a middle-class schoolteacher), but they shared a collective understanding of the importance of the items they collected, even if the wider academic world may not have appreciated them entirely. The Ball and Adomeit collections do have rare books on history and literature, but have a greater focus on children’s literature especially. Although these works don’t exactly fit into the great Western canon of literature, they’re still important and necessary to consider when thinking about how certain groups of people fit into (or are excluded from) parts of society past and present.
Outside of the Ball Room, some of the librarians of the Lilly were showcasing unique picks that they had curated specifically for First Thursdays, and two items they showed me really brought home the thoughts I had that were motivated by the “Ladies of the Lilly” exhibit. One was a gorgeous set of hand-made alphabet cards and reading cards made by I believe a sixteenth century aristocratic lady, and the other (my favorite) was a handwritten book of cookery of a similar era that was written by passing it around a community of women who filled with recipes for entertaining, feeding families, and healing. Both of these items, although perhaps considered infantile or commonplace in their times, today represent an important narrative of social groups, of family, and of connection that are preserved by collectors such as Ball and Adomeit and the curators at the Lilly Library.