SIOUX CITY | Kept in a closet under lock and key at the Sioux City Public Library is a religious book known as a "breviary." The book, which was printed during the 15th century, is the oldest and likely most valuable book in the library's possession.
Library historian Jessi Wakefield said the breviary contains prayers, hymns, psalms and readings in Latin that were used by Roman Catholic priests. It weighs about 50 pounds and is made of velum, prepared animal skin.
"Whenever we do want to show it to the public, which hasn't happened in a while, we do put it under a locked case," said Wakefield, who was handling the book for the very first time. "Although velum is sturdy, it's not easy to work with when you're used to paper."
According an article published in the Sioux City Journal in June 1931, the breviary was obtained from the library of the royal Medici family in Florence, Italy, by Dr. Gertrude Van Wagenen Failey, a Columbia University faculty member, in 1928. Failey's family lived in Sioux City in the 1900 block of Rebecca Street from 1892 to 1919.
According to the article, Failey purchased the breviary while on an extended tour of Europe in 1928. Wakefield said she doesn't know how much the breviary, which measures 42 inches across when opened and features embellishments with rich colors and gold leafing, is appraised at or insured for. A. Van Wagenen, a former judge, and his family presented the breviary to the library in 1931, about three years after Failey's death.
Wakefield said she feels the area in the Wilbur Aalfs Library where the breviary is housed is the most secure and pristine place in the building.
"Anytime that you have anything of any value, you have to make sure that it has climate control," Wakefield said. "Any place where you can control the temperature and amount of humidity of the room is going to be the best for that particular artifact."
Although the breviary is a non-circulating book, Wakefield said any member of the public could theoretically look at the book after going through the proper channels.
"It looks like there has been some sort of water damage at some point that's taking away from the integrity of the velum, but because it's velum instead of paper it can handle stuff like that a lot better," she said.
Although the library receives tons of book donations, Wakefield said maybe once a year staff come across something of real value, which they set aside.
An Illustrated Atlas of the State of Iowa, which dates back to 1875 and is also among the library's oldest books, was likely obtained by donation as well, according to Wakefield.
Don't judge the book by its worn black cover.
The atlas contains 590 pages of detailed illustrations of places of interest in Iowa's 99 counties, biographical sketches of prominent government figures, an extensive appendix and maps of Iowa and the world. You can view a list of post offices, census data and life expectancy.
The illustrations were done by A.T. Andreas. More than a thousand other people contributed to the atlas and their names take up many of its pages.
Wakefield said a library volunteer takes donated books that are believed to be of significant value to a dealer in Omaha to have their worth assessed.
"I know if we were to be gifted anything like this again, it wouldn't be in the donations," Wakefiled said of the breviary. "We would make a time to bring it in and make it an actual production, because this is clearly more valuable than most anything we have here."