Being a know-it-all is a pain; my visit to the University of Minnesota Holmes collection

As a know-it-all, it’s so easy to hear someone give an interesting talk and dismiss it as—“oh, I knew that, and that, and that, and … wait, what did he say?” Tim Johnson, who’s Curator of Special Collections & Rare Books / E. W. McDiarmid Curator of the Sherlock Holmes Collections, was speaking to my JASNA tour group, giving a pretty impressive overview of Sherlock Holmes, the University of Minnesota’s Holmes collection and the history of how the university came to have this collection.

I was suffering from a nasty head cold (still am as I write this) and a little disappointed because I couldn’t just wander the collection and put my grubby, germy fingers on a first-edition of Beeton’s Christmas Annual when I realized Johnson was holding a copy of same. Then he showed a copy of Colliers Magazine (I can’t recall what story was featured, but I’m sure some know-it-all will tell me) and then a manuscript page from The Hound of Baskervilles (apparently manuscript pages were sent to America to be used as advertisements and giveaways for the American publication).

He also went into the story of how the Norwegian Explorers of Minnesota was formed and how the university came to own the largest collection of Holmes-related memorabilia. From the website:

The Sherlock Holmes Collections began in 1974 with the purchase of James C. Iraldi’s small but distinguished library of first editions of the Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Thus, the University of Minnesota Library has been building the Sherlock Holmes Collections for more than thirty years. Direct purchases and generous donations have helped the Collections to reach their current size and comprehensiveness. Two of the more important collections of the many that have been added since 1974 are those of Philip S. Hench and John Bennett Shaw. Philip S. Hench M.D., was a Mayo Clinic consulting physician and a recipient of the Nobel Prize for medicine (1950), who, with his wife Mary Kahler Hench, built one of the more remarkable Sherlockian libraries ever assembled. The treasures of the Hench library include: unique copies of Beeton’s Christmas Annual, (1887) containing A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes adventure; English and American first editions of the stories; plus material related to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, William Gillette, and Frederic Dorr Steele. John Bennett Shaw, an entrepreneur from Santa Fe, New Mexico attempted to collect everything on or about Sherlock Holmes and nearly succeeded. The Shaw Collection is the most diverse, with items running the gamut from books to stuffed animals.

It quickly became obvious Johnson really was a very good speaker and obviously a true Sherlockian. I began to pay attention and realized that my silly hope that I could just wander the collection was a three-pipe dream. Undoubtedly most of the collection could be find in the massive underground vaults (two football fields long on two levels dug out beside the Mississippi River). It was explained that anyone can use the Andersen library (in which you can find the Holmes collection); you don’t have to be a scholar. A desk will be assigned to you and what you request will be brought to you, perhaps utilizing one of the forklifts I saw operating.

We also walked over to another library where a replica of the sitting room at 221 B has been created. At the Andersen library is a display showing the notes of Dr. Hench, who traveled to Meiringen and the Reichenbach Falls and studied the geography; and at the other library that also houses the sitting room (I can’t recall the name of that library) there’s a room that shows movie posters, games and Holmes memorabilia in other languages.

It was also encouraging, I finally realized, how many Janeites are also Sherlockians (or at least have read the Canon). They had to make up extra tour groups, five in all. I hope that some day I might take a stab at higher criticism that would require me to visit the collection and actually hold in my hands some rare piece of Sherlockiana.

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