The Rare Books Collection: How did it all start?

Prior to 1959, the university library’s Rare Books Collection was relatively small. The first significant contribution to the collection was the George McArthur bequest, which was made in 1903. George McArthur (1842-1903) donated “the whole of his books” to the University of Melbourne, which involved some 2,500 volumes. [1.] These books covered topics such as Australian exploration, mining history, typography, and early printing. The bequest made up around ten percent of the library’s rare cultural materials at the time, and led the way forward to allow for the collection to develop.

Rare Book Room
Shelves of the Rare Book Room

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The Gerson incunabulum

The University of Melbourne’s Rare Book Collection holds around 30 incunabula, or early printed books and these are all digitised. ‘Incunabula’ is a term given to books produced in the cradle days of book printing, generally pre-1500, and they are distinct from manuscripts, which are hand-written. One of the University’s incunabula was published in 1489 and was authored by Jean (Johannes) Charlier de Gerson (1363-1429), a French scholar devoted to the study of the Catholic Church, who published extensively throughout his life. The title Opera means ‘Work’, and the book appears to be one of three volumes comprising a treatise on the Catholic Church. This first volume is subtitled Prima pars operii Johannes Gerson, meaning ‘The first part of the works of Johannes Gerson’.

Gerson sample page
Sample page from Jean Gerson, ‘Opera’, Nuremburg: Georg Stuchs, 1489, Rare Books Collection

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