Behind the closed door

The G.K. Chesterton Room houses the printed word’s rich history

By John C. Bruening ’86

It was a mystery for decades. The G.K. Chesterton Room, located on the third floor of the Grasselli Library and John G. and Mary Jane Breen Learning Center, is a place everyone in the John Carroll community had heard of, but few had seen. Many students who spent time in the library knew little about the room or who Chesterton was. The Chesterton Room is as old as the library, and five decades after it was drawn into the original design and construction of the library, it’s finally open for business – for everybody.

“You’ll find the whole gamut, spanning hundreds of years,” says Charles Zarobila, Ph.D., ’72, curator of special collections. “Books from the beginning of printing to contemporary times. There’s the spectrum of liberal arts – theology, literature, languages, philosophy. Because we’re John Carroll and have a theological history, there’s a strong theological dimension to the collection.”

Home to 3,500 titles, the room is named in honor of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, the prolific British writer whose body of work is as eclectic as it is massive. In a span of four decades between the 1890s until his death in 1936, Chesterton’s writing career encompassed journalism, poetry, fiction, philosophy, playwriting, essays, literary and art criticism, biography, and Christian apologetics.

A substantial collection of this work made its way to JCU via a series of convergent events more than a half century ago. Chesterton had been a favorite writer of Robert Yackshaw, Ph.D., an English professor at Carroll during the 1950s through the mid- 1980s. Early in his career, Yackshaw became aware of a large collection of Chesterton first editions – about 1,200 in all – and other Chesterton-related memorabilia that was part of the estate of Robert John Bayer, a Chicago newspaperman and Chesterton aficionado who died a few years earlier.


“Chesterton had converted to Catholicism later in life [in 1922, at age 48],” Zarobila says. “In addition to writing stories and poetry, he wrote a lot of theological essays about Catholicism. That was probably why Yackshaw thought the collection would be relevant to a Catholic university. He was interested in Chesterton as a writer, and then there was this Catholic connection. So he convinced the school the collection would be a nice addition to the special books we had in our library.”

At the time of the acquisition in the late 1950s, the library was located in the Administration Building, but plans were under way to build a free-standing library. During the design phase of the new building – eventually christened Grasselli Library – space was set aside on the third floor for a room that would house rare books and special collections, including items from the library and some that had been in storage at St. Ignatius College – the precursor to John Carroll, now St. Ignatius High School on Cleveland’s near West Side – since its founding in 1886.

The ornate woodwork and furnishings in the Chesterton Room were once a part of the Longwood Mansion, an English Tudor house on a 125-acre estate along Mayfield Road in nearby Cleveland Heights. In the early 1900s, the Longwood mansion belonged to John L. Severance – industrialist, patron of the arts, and scion of Cleveland’s wealthy and influential Severance family – but was demolished in 1960 to make way for Severance Mall, a retail complex. Carroll acquired some of the mansion’s woodwork and furnishings and installed them in the new library’s rare book room, which became the repository for the Chesterton collection, as well as old and rare books from the aforementioned sources.

Old and sacred
Shortly after Grasselli Library opened in 1961, the special collections room was christened the G.K. Chesterton Room. From the beginning, it was considered sacred territory. By the early ’70s, when Zarobila began working in the library, things hadn’t changed much.

Lincoln’s in the Chesterton Room

Of all the acquisitions in the Grasselli Library and John G. and Mary Jane Breen Learning Center’s special collections, the most recent might be one of the most prestigious. Early in 2011, a John Carroll alumnus, who wishes to remain anonymous, began donating a 24-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln to the library, where it will be housed in the G.K. Chesterton Room.

“Abraham Lincoln: A History,” originally a 10-volume opus written by John G. Nicolay and John Hay and published in 1890, is one of the earliest and most definitive chronicles of the life of the 16th president of the United States. Nicolay and Hay served as secretaries to Lincoln during his presidency. The gift is a 1910 edition of the Nicolay- Hay biography, enhanced with supplemental illustrations and expanded to 24 volumes.

“The publishers of this edition took all the same printing plates that had been used in the previous mass-market edition and printed it on higher quality paper, bound it in leather, and inserted many luxurious illustrations,” says Charles Zarobila, Ph.D., ’72, curator of special collections at the library and the keeper of the Chesterton Room.

“The pictures in the original edition were are all black-and- white engravings, but someone took watercolors and painted them for this 1910 edition. Also, the title pages of each of these 24 volumes weren’t printed; they were handcrafted, so each book is a mixture of calligraphy and print technology.”

Nicolay and Hay’s biographical narrative ends with the 23rd volume in the set, but it’s the 24th book that’s possibly the most valuable piece in the set. It’s a scrapbook containing various papers from Lincoln’s presidency – many related to the administrative logistics of the Civil War from the Union perspective, some bearing his signature.

The Lincoln collection also includes a copy of what’s known as the Gettysburg Portrait taken by Scottish photographer Alexander Gardner two weeks before Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address in 1863.

For as historically rich and resonant as the biography, photos, and miscellaneous Lincoln items in the Chesterton Room might seem, they’re merely the tip of the iceberg, according to Jeanne Somers, director of the Grasselli Library and Breen Learning Center.

“What we have is a relatively small percentage of the donor’s overall Lincoln collection,” Somers says. “He has more books and documents and framed prints he’s planning to give to the library.”

Then again, when dealing with artifacts from someone of the stature of Abraham Lincoln, perhaps a little at a time is the best approach.

“It’s amazing to come into direct contact with original documents like these,” Somers says. “I think everyone on staff had a powerful experience with these materials when they first came into our possession, and that’s the experience we’d like our students and everyone here at the University to have as well.”

“Back then, you’d come into the room, and it’d be this mysterious museum of a place,” he says. “Only ‘important’ people could be a part of this room. If you were a student, maybe you could come here for a meeting, or you might do your masters oral exam here, but that would be it. There was no one here who made it his mission to talk about the books or know about the history behind them.”

When Zarobila took the position of curator of special collections in the late ’80s – a role that made him the overseer of the Chesterton Room and its contents – he became that person.

“The books should mean something to people,” he says. “I wanted to be able to talk to students about the books, or talk to visitors from the community about them, to tell them what the books are all about – and in so doing, recreate history. The room should be more accessible.”

One of the first tasks Zarobila took on was gathering old and rare books – generally speaking, anything published before 1801 – from the stacks of the main library for inclusion in the Chesterton Room. The initiative resulted in the expansion of the room’s inventory by 200 volumes.

Since then, the room has become a treasure trove of books that are fascinating and valuable because of their age, rarity, and significance to theological history and traditions. The oldest volume is an early printing of “Summa Theologica,” the compendium of church teachings written in the 13th century by St. Thomas Aquinas. Printed in Latin and published in 1470, the book was most likely part of the St. Ignatius College collection.

“In the history of printing, a book like this is considered incunabula, which is a Latin phrase meaning in the cradle,” Zarobila says. “It’s a metaphorical phrase describing books in the cradle or the earliest books.”

A more recent text is Bishop John Carroll’s “Address to the Roman Catholics of the United States of America,” written in 1784 and printed the same year by Fredrick Green, a Catholic printer from Annapolis, Md.

“Originally, we had later printings of books John Carroll had written, but nothing that had been printed in his lifetime,” Zarobila says. “But I found the book in a catalog, and we purchased it. This is something he wrote to squelch heretical practices that had been happening in the early colonies. The pope had instructed him to write a letter to the people to address the heresy.”

Not everything in special collections is old. The Prophet’s Edition of the St. John’s Bible is a gift to Carroll from St. John’s University in Minnesota from the Target Corp. in honor of the company’s retired executive vice president, John Pellegrene ’58. The richly illuminated 21st- century Bible is handwritten in English by a team of British artists and calligraphers under the direction of Donald Jackson, senior scribe to Her Majesty the Queen’s Crown Office at the House of Lords. Jackson and his colleagues assembled the seven-volume text using materials traditionally associated with enduring manuscripts: carefully prepared calfskins, hand-cut quills, century-old inks, and precious metals.

The library is in the process of acquiring a 24-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln published in the early 1900s, along with a sizable collection of Lincoln papers, many of which include Lincoln’s signature. The collection is a gift from a JCU alumnus who prefers to remain anonymous.

A newcomer to the G.K. Chesterton Room and its treasures might expect to see these and other volumes protected under glass or sealed away to protect their pages and bindery from harmful atmospheric effects. Instead, the books are more likely to be found on the large oak table in the room, waiting for any visitor to peruse and explore them. Zarobila wouldn’t have it any other way because he wants as many opportunities that allow people to experience what’s in the room.

“These are human artifacts – they’re meant to be handled by humans,” he says. “You don’t necessarily have to be wearing cotton gloves every time you handle them. God knows what dungeon some of these volumes were in before they made their way here. They might have been in a dank cellar during the Thirty Years War with cannon smoke filling the room. It’s great for me to see students come in and touch the books to connect with them in some way.” JCU

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