Rare book display marks Milton’s 400th birthday

For English professor John Leonard, there is no place more reassuring than in the bowels of the Archives and Research Collections Centre with a first-edition of John Milton at his ready.

Graduate student Karla Landells, James Alexander and Ellen Rea Benson Special Collections Librarian (Western Archives) John Lutman and English professor John Leonard look over some of Western’s extensive John Milton collection, ranked fifth-best in the world.

He can share his love for the 17th century English poet with students, who have a rare opportunity to join him in holding history in their hands.

“There is no better place. My students definitely appreciate the fact they can hold and touch these limited editions,” says Leonard. “It is a completely different experience than they could ever receive in the classroom.”

The university has more than 800 of Milton’s works, part of the holdings of the G. William Stuart Jr. Collection of Milton and Miltoniana.

While the books are not readily available to the general public and student population, part of the collection is on display for the first time at the John A. Schweitzer Gallery in the Archives and Research Collections Centre — part of Milton’s 400th birthday celebration.

Western’s collection includes some first published editions from the 17th century right through to the 20th century .

One student who got to read a first-edition Milton is graduate student Karla Landells. The Nova Scotian chose to do her graduate work at Western because of Leonard and the renowned Milton collection.

“I came because I wanted to learn from Professor Leonard and I knew of the Milton collection held at the university,” says Landells. “These are the tools I want to learn from.”

“Just the smell of cracking open a 17th century novel and being able to actually hold what thousands of people have read over all these centuries. And who’s to say Milton himself didn’t touch one of these books.”

Western’s collection has been deemed the fifth-best in the world. Only the University of Illinois, the Lilly Library at the University of Indiana, the British Museum in England and the Bodleian Library at Oxford University lay claim to larger collections.

John Lutman, the James Alexander and Ellen Rea Benson Special Collections Librarian, says while he hasn’t had the collection appraised he doubts it would change the academic value of the works.

“This is one of the more significant collections for us and it’s scholarly value is invaluable,” says Lutman, noting a majority of the collection (450 works) was purchased from a California book collector and dealer in 1969.

“We could get a dollar value, but that’s just a number. The collection is more valuable than that.”

The collection continues to grow, with Lutman acquiring three 19th century Milton works just last month. The collection even includes a personal copy of a Milton work from former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (1868, 1874-80).

“Imagine an original copy of a Milton work hot off the press being sold in a market store near St. Paul’s Cathedral before the great fire,” says Leonard, who is in California today (Dec. 4) taking part in an all-day reading