The Book of Hours, a 16th century prayer book, was donated 100 years ago to the Indiana State Library and is now one of the oldest items in the division of rare books and manuscripts. Kelly Lafferty Gerber | CNHI News Indiana
The Book of Hours, a 16th century prayer book, was donated 100 years ago to the Indiana State Library and is now one of the oldest items in the division of rare books and manuscripts. Kelly Lafferty Gerber | CNHI News Indiana
Housed in a back corner inside a restricted room in the Indiana State Library, the windowless area is surrounded by floor-to-ceiling metal fencing only accessible through a locked gate.

The extra security makes sense. The cage holds the most rare and valuable artifacts accumulated by the library since it was founded two centuries ago.

One item is the Book of Hours published in 1520 in Europe. Illuminated with gold leafing and hand-drawn designs, the book lists hourly prayers made to the Virgin Mary. It was donated by a Hoosier collector a century ago.

There’s the only existing copy of an 1818 treaty between the federal government and the Miami Indians. Hand-written on a massive animal-skin parchment, the Treaty of St. Mary’s was part of the largescale effort to purchase indigenous people’s land before moving them west.

The manuscripts are impressive in their own right. But what makes them even more unique is the fact they are the property of Hoosiers who can access them at any time, explained Seth Irwin, the library’s conservator.

“If you’re a taxpayer of Indiana, you own this stuff as much as we do,” he said. “We’re just the custodians of it and take care of it, but it’s a public collection. You own it. We all own it.”


The library next year celebrates its bicentennial, but the first mention of it dates back to 1816.

That’s when legislators at the Constitutional Convention passed a resolution to appropriate money for the “purchase of books for a library for the use of the legislature and other officers of government.”

It was then formally established in 1825 and has been operating ever since, making it one of the oldest state agencies.

Over the decades, the library’s mission has expanded to include preserving and promoting artifacts that make up Indiana’s history. Now, it’s the largest public collection in the state.a

The library houses well over a million items that include photos, newspapers, genealogical records, posters, maps and letters that tell unique and diverse stories from Indiana and across the globe.

The rarest artifacts located in the cage are just a tiny smattering of that huge collection.

All of it is stored and painstakingly archived inside what’s become known as the vault, located at the library’s main building in downtown Indianapolis.

On the surface, the area looks like a mundane repetition of blue and white boxes stacked on shelves as far as the eye can see. But inside, each box contains a treasure trove of history.


On a weekday morning in March, Victoria Duncan, supervisor of the library’s rare book and manuscript division, opened one of the boxes. Inside where photos, clippings and other items related to the 1960 Democratic National Convention – just one example of the niche history housed in each storage unit.

Duncan presented other items in the collection, like a letter written by Susan B. Anthony to Hoosier suffragists. A scrap book compiled by an Indiana man contains signed letters from four U.S. presidents and other historical titans like Nikola Tesla and Booker T. Washington.

There’s a leather-bound account book from 1779 used by a fur trapper to keep tabs on what he bought and sold. The family of the man who used the ledger ended up later serving as lawyers, judges, senators and mayors throughout Indiana.

The most-used and requested collection is the plethora of historic photos that hail from every county in the state, Duncan noted.

“On the surface, it might look like a less interesting collection, but sometimes we can really find gold in here,” she said.

Indiana’s collection contains some of the most diverse and strange artifacts of any state library in the country. Many agencies aren’t open to the public and only operate to store government documents required by federal law. Some have expanded collections dedicated exclusively to state history.

But the Indiana library holds truly one-of-kind items with international appeal, like a 14th century illuminated Bible and a French newspaper showing the internal construction of the Statue of Liberty.

That’s because for decades, the agency accepted about anything donated by a Hoosier, even if the contents weren’t related to Indiana. Today, the library uses more discretion when deciding what donations to include.

“We have some weird stuff,” said Irwin, the conservator. “I often wonder why we have this stuff, but it’s just that we’ve been around for so long as a library.”


On most days, Irwin can be found inside the library’s preservation lab. The room once used to store Christmas decorations now serves as a high-tech workshop where Irwin brings crumbling, cracked and decaying artifacts back to life.

On one table sits a huge 19th century wall map of Perry County, with small chunks missing all across it. Irwin will spend a good portion of this year restoring these kinds of maps, which once served as a kind of early version of a phone book with the locations of businesses, churches and other buildings listed.

“Each one of these takes about five continuous days to fix,” he said. “There are thousands of little pieces in there that are all misaligned. It’s like a floating jigsaw puzzle.”

With such a large collection of old documents, preservation is the name of the game inside the vault.

Small sensors are placed throughout the building to take constant readings of the temperature and humidity. Every item is stored in acidfree paper and boxes.

“Our biggest enemies are paper clips and staples,” Duncan said. “They rust on the documents. We use plastic archival paper clips instead.”

Irwin has also developed emergency plans to respond to the kinds of events that make librarians shudder: mold outbreaks, pest infestations and flooding. The library actually has a huge walk-in freezer for disaster management. Cold temperatures are the best thing for old documents, Duncan explained.

All of it is there to ensure one of the most unique state collections in the country stays safe so Hoosiers can access their history for centuries to come. All anyone has to do is ask, and a librarian will bring down any item from inside the vault.

“We want to make it accessible so that people can really interact and learn about Indiana history,” Duncan said. “There’s a lot of pride here and a lot of history to talk about, so we feel a real pressure to share it.”
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