REXBURG, Idaho — For the past three years, the BYU-Idaho library staff has made it its mission to create the ultimate collection of scripture.
In early January, they added the crown jewel to their collection: a fragmentary copy of the Gutenberg Bible.
"They are exceedingly rare," said university librarian Martin Raish, who captained the quest to acquire the artifact.
Rare and profoundly significant: The Gutenberg Bible was one of the first books ever printed, ushering in the age of the printed book.
It was an edition of the Vulgate Bible, printed by Johannes Gutenberg, a German printer who developed the use of movable type, in the 1450s.
He printed approximately 180 Bibles. Only about 46 are still in existence in some fragmentary condition, and of those, approximately 23 are complete. The most recent purchase of a completed Gutenberg Bible took place around 25 years ago in Texas for $2 million.
"Even what we purchased, a leaf, is quite a find," Raish said.
Raish had been prepping a proposal so the university could try to acquire a Gutenberg leaf; he had even been speaking with a dealer who had a couple of pages.
But he decided to go online to make sure that the dealer was giving them a good price.
He stumbled across the Web site for an auction house in California that had a Gutenberg leaf — and it wasn't going to be auctioned until the next morning.
The only person on campus that day who could authorize bidding on the artifact was President Kim B. Clark.
"I was nervous," Raish said. "But I threw together my proposal. I think he liked it."
BYU-I was the high bidder. Raish believes they were meant to have the leaf.
"It wasn't any old page — you know, 'so-and-so begat so-and-so,' " said Raish. "It ended up being the page with Job 38 on it: 'When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?' (Job 38:7) A perfect scripture for Latter-day Saints."
The page is in excellent condition, according to Raish. "We were doing double back flips," he said.
He took it to the conservation lab at the Church History Library where they tidied the page up and put it inside two sheets of pH-neutral, acid-free acetate.
The evolution of the preservation and recording of language is important to Raish and his colleagues — specifically in relation to religious texts.
The library already possesses facsimiles of different early Bibles. They have an original 1611 edition of the King James Bible that's currently being restored.
They also have a working replica of the Grandin Press that the first edition of the Book of Mormon was printed on in 1830 — oh, and they have a tattered but genuine copy of that as well.
But it's not just about collecting rare pieces and sheltering them in acetate, allowing professionals in white coats and plastic gloves to stand five feet away and make intelligent observations.
"These are for students to touch and really play with," Raish said.
The goal of BYU-I's scriptorium collection is to make these history-changing pieces accessible to students.
"They can actually hold a page of the Gutenberg Bible — hold the first book printed in the western European tradition," he said.
Raish believes that collecting these artifacts and letting students touch them, look at them, is the ultimate teaching tool.
"They get to tangibly understand how difficult it was to print, initially."
He points out how the modern book took a long time to develop. Things we take for granted like the title page, table of contents or page numbers were added gradually.
"We think about how quickly the Internet exploded onto the scene," Raish said. "The book was the same way: Fifty years after the Gutenberg Bible was printed, 10 million physical books were in existence — that's astronomical. Printing presses were everywhere, just like how, now, everything is online."
Yet the aspect of the Gutenberg leaf that Raish loves the most is what sets it apart from the disembodied online world: The lower corner is dirty and smeared.
"This book was used," Raish said. "Sometimes we forget that this isn't some incomprehensible artifact — it's tactile. Actual human beings turned these pages and read the scriptures. That's incredible."