Arts & Culture

Rare Books from The Houston Public Library Are Going on Limited Display

In a hidden-away room, the library has amassed a large collection of historic documents from Texas and around the world

These aren’t the books you’ll find on the shelf at your local library branch.

To access the Houston Public Library’s rare book collection, we’re taken to an upper floor of the downtown library’s historic Julia Idelson Building. We go through a locked door to a darkened, climate-controlled room that’s referred to as “The Vault.”

The person who oversees the room is Preservation Librarian Elizabeth Mayer.

“We have items that go extremely far back into the origins of the City of Houston itself and the origins of Texas as a state,” said Mayer.

The collection includes correspondence from Sam Houston when he was governor of Texas, along with documents that lay out Houston’s early street grid. A box on a shelf contains papers from billionaire Howard Hughes, a Houston native.

But the collection also features items from around the world, like a Koran from the 14th century. Mayer showed News 88.7 a small leather-bound book, its pages decorated in gilt and vibrant shades of blue.

Another item in the collection is a book of hours from the 15th century with hand-painted illustrations. It sat alongside a Salvador Dali folio from 1969 that contained fanciful scenes from “Alice in Wonderland.”

Mayer explains that many of their rare books came from two prolific Houston collectors in the early 1900’s. John Milsaps amassed hundreds of books while traveling as an officer with the Salvation Army. He also kept extensive diaries which were also donated to the library.

Other rare books came from Annette Finnigan, a businesswoman and women’s suffrage advocate who was interested in the history of the written word. The oldest item in the collection came from Finnigan, a tiny cuneiform tablet that’s believed to date back to 5000 BC.

Mayer explained the library allows public access to the rare books room, but it’s limited. Researchers can make appointments to see the collection. However, they can only stay for two hours at a time.

To help the public learn more about the collection, some items will be put on limited display Thursday evening, September 6.

Mayer said they’ll bring about 15 items to the Texas Room in the Julia Idelson Building. Because those items are so precious they’ll only be on display for an hour, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Library staffers say it’s a chance for Houstonians to see their city in a new light.

“I just feel really privileged and honored to be a part of this, part of a library that had the wherewithal and foresight to collect a collection like this, to amass the items we have here,” said Laney Chavez, manager of the library’s Houston Metropolitan Research Center. “Every day is a new discovery.”

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Gail Delaughter

Gail Delaughter

Transportation Reporter

From early-morning interviews with commuters to walks through muddy construction sites, Gail covers all aspects of getting around Houston. That includes walking, driving, cycling, taking the bus, and occasionally flying. Before she became transportation reporter in 2011, Gail hosted weekend programs for Houston Public Media. She's also covered courts in...

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