Whose Culture Is It, Anyway? The Long Journey of the Stockbridge Bible

Whose Culture Is It, Anyway? The Long Journey of the Stockbridge Bible

A large folio edition of the Bible printed in Oxford in the early 1700s might not fit the typical profile of a Native American cultural heritage item. But the Stockbridge Bible, given as a gift to the Stockbridge Indians in 1745, is just that and more.

The two leather bound volumes symbolize so much of the tribe’s collective history: the early conversion to the Christian religion, historical ties to the Revolutionary War and the arduous journey from Massachusetts to New York to Wisconsin, where the group would eventually settle and become the Stockbridge-Munsee tribe.[1]

But unfortunately, the Bible would disappear from the tribe in the early 1930s, and its whereabouts would remain unknown for about two decades. Then after it was located, the Stockbridge-Munsee people would engage in a 15-year struggle to regain possession of their prized Bible. Although there was no felonious theft involved, and the final judgment regarding the Bible was issued in probate court, not a packed federal courtroom, the story is a fascinating tale of stolen culture and a devoted effort to reclaim it.

By the time a Massachusetts judge put pen to paper on December 19, 1990, the saga of the Stockbridge Bible had been going on for nearly 250 years. In 1745, eleven years after the tribe allowed an English missionary to set up an Indian mission near their settlement in Massachusetts, Reverend Francis Aysough, a representative of the Prince of Wales, felt compelled to give the Indians a major gift when he heard about their conversion and successful mission town (Siemers 2007).

Aysough had the two volumes of the elegant 1717 edition of the Bible bound. Thomas Coram, a London philanthropist who had been in contact about raising money for mission schools, wrote an inscription on the cover of the Bible, declaring it “the gift of the Rev. D. Francis Ayscough to the Indian Congregation at Housatonic in New England.” Coram also wrote a longer message inside, where he wrote that the Bible “is to remain to the use of the Successors, of those Indians, from Generation to Generation; as a testimony of the said Doctor’s Great Regard for the Salvation of their souls…” (Siemers 2007) These dedications would prove important centuries later.

The Stockbridge Indians accepted the gift with enthusiasm, and made the Bible one of their most cherished possessions, even when they faced some extremely difficult circumstances. Many Stockbridge Indian men fought in the Revolutionary War, but when they returned, they found that most of their land had been taken (Cooper). Because of this, the tribe was forced to move to western New York around 1785. Then in 1820 the Stockbridge were on the move again, this time to Wisconsin. The Bible came along during these migrations, and the tribe even built a special oak chest to protect it (Cooper).

After they settled in their present location of Shawano County Wisconsin in 1856, little is known about the exact location of the Bible over the next few decades. It next surfaced in a newspaper article in the early 1900s. By the 1930s, the Bible had mysteriously disappeared from the reservation and the majority of the tribe had no idea where their prized volumes resided. Two members would eventually find out.

Jim and Grace Davis yearned to learn more about their ancestors and the history of the Stockbridge tribe. In 1951, the husband and wife made a pilgrimage to Stockbridge, Massachusetts to visit the original settlement. The Davises explored various historic sites, took in the sights and sounds of the town, and learned a lot about their forbearers.  Then they entered a building called the Mission House Museum. When they saw their tribe’s priceless Stockbridge Bible sitting in a case, they were stunned. (Cooper, Siemers 2009) How did the two volumes end up in a museum run by whites over 1,000 miles away from the tribe? And how were the rest of the tribe’s members unaware of its location? To understand the answer, we must return to 1908.

At that time, the exact whereabouts of the Bible within the tribe were unknown. Earl North, a local minister, wrote in a Calvinist newspaper that “the Bible was found in a deserted house and was carefully cleaned and put in a place of safety at the home of Mr. Jameson Quinney.” There is little evidence to back up this assertion, and other accounts say that the Bible was not lost and re-discovered, but rather brought to Quinney because he was a tribal leader (Siemers 2009). One fact suggesting that the Bible was never neglected or placed in inhospitable conditions is its present spectacular condition: “Considering its age … it doesn’t appear to have suffered any damage” (Siemers 2007). But on the other hand, the tribe was facing conflict and severe economic hardships at the time, so it could have been temporarily misplaced as the tribe dealt with more pressing issues.

Regardless of what actually transpired, awareness of the Bible increased greatly as a result of the article and its possession by Quinney. The publicity would prove to have significant consequences. Quinney showed off the Stockbridge Bible at a Presbyterian Synod meeting in 1915, and by this point, word was spreading about the unique and valuable item. Soon after, he transferred the Bible to a safe on the altar of the John Sargeant Memorial Church for security. It is said that around this time Quinney was offered several thousand dollars for the two volumes, which he refused (Siemers 2007).

Then in 1927, an article in the Milwaukee Journal took the abandonment angle to a new level. After giving inaccurate information about when and how the Bible had been acquired, the story describes how Kuni (Quinney) rediscovered it. “(Kuni) was poking aimlessly around a rubbish heap in 1875 when he saw what looked like a piece of good leather.” This is likely an exaggeration of the earlier minister’s report, and this same story was retold in an article published in the local Shawano Advocate. The latter article has been described as “full of racial bias,” (Siemers 2009) as it describes the Indians mistreating the magnificent item by stashing it in a pile of trash. It also depicts them as hoarding the Bible for themselves instead of letting the whites control it. The Milwaukee Journal says that act of misplacing the Bible made the Indians “disconsolate, for surely the wrath of the white God would come upon them.” These two articles played a strong role in spreading the story of the Stockbridge Bible to new people. One of these people was Mabel Choate.

An affluent collector of antiques from Masachusetts, Choate planned to build a museum to honor the Reverend John Sargeant, who initially converted the Stockbridge tribe in the 1700s. She naturally wanted as many of their documents and artifacts as possible, with the Stockbridge Bible being the crown jewel of their possessions. By this time, Quinney was nearing the end of his life. He took the Bible away from the church and back to his house, perhaps fearing that the tribe was at risk of losing it to whites after the publicity of the newspaper articles (Guthrie, Siemers 2007).

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The Importance of Rare Book Libraries: Unique Functions and Special Budget Requirements

This post is an essay on the special functions and unique role of rare books and special collections in the context of a large academic library. Let’s imagine that the Dean of Libraries at the University has reviewed the budget and seen the rare books department is the most expensive. The Dean is looking for places where expenditures can be trimmed, and the following memo explains how the rare books department is unique in its functions and required funding.

TO: Dean of Libraries

FROM: Joseph

RE: Rare Books and Special Collections Budget

DATE: May 18, 2012

Since the Rare Books and Special Collections department plays a unique and vital role in the University Library system, it would frankly be very difficult to cut our budget at this time without compromising our fundamental mission to collect and preserve culturally significant items and make them available for use. Such a trimming in expenditure would not only adversely affect our faculty, students and the local community, but also the greater worldwide research community and scholarship in general.


While we share larger goals with the University Library as a whole, such as providing access to information and supporting scholarship, many factors make our functions distinct from other library departments. For one, many of our 245,000 rare books and manuscripts are unique, meaning ours is the only copy in the world. This means that many of these items are exceedingly valuable, but that is not the most important point. We also must consider the immense academic value of these special items in their original physical form. Primary source research is required in order to further the humanities, social sciences and sciences, and without proper care, these items will disappear, never again to benefit scholarship and future research. Thus, the special collections department budget includes many expenses for both preservation of the collection in general as well as the conservation of specific items. For the former goal, we need to have a secure, climate-controlled space for our collection, and our vault currently has a number high-tech measures to control access and protect against natural disasters. We need to protect against earthquakes, water, and fire damage and well as theft and damage resulting from frequent handling. Our security system requires significant maintenance costs and we also need to constantly evaluate new options and weigh costs and benefits, as the field of security is fast changing. Our Security Planning Group regularly meets to discuss these issues and expresses them in our security policy documentation. To give a specific example, we recently needed to invest in a new biometrics entry system for controlled access to the vault after several manuscripts disappeared from our collection over the course of several months. Even though such costs may seem high up front, they lead to a much longer lifespan for our collection, in comparison to a situation where we are not adequately protected and risk losing our invaluable items in one disastrous event.


Similarly, we incur costs relating to the preservation of specific rare items in addition to the conservation of the collection as a whole. These expenses include replacement bindings and corrugated boxes for damaged and books, as well as shelf folders and binders for manuscripts and other documents. With these early printed books and manuscripts, which are now quite fragile and brittle after centuries, many seemingly minor things prove very important to researchers. This can include types of paper and ink used, the typeface, and even marginalia added by a significant reader. The needs of our unit relate primarily to the idea of the book as object, in contrast to the rest of the  library system where the value of books and other information resources is derived primarily from their content. Both are integral parts of our goals as a major university library, but our missions require vastly different functions and levels of expenditure.


In addition to this physical preservation, we assist in the funding of various digitization projects for our culturally significant items in an effort to preserve for the long-term and make them accessible online through our digital collections website. Not only does this require digitization equipment, but also significant staff time in determining the right procedures, workflows, formats and metadata standards in order to ensure that the items will remain interoperable and able to be found by researchers worldwide. Since our unique holdings are vital for scholarship and belong to our university as well as the worldwide academic community, it is our duty to do all we can to ensure they will continue to be available for study.


Our department, however, is not merely a dusty archive filled with valuable books and manuscripts. To truly make our books and special collections worthwhile, we must provide access to them, and this is another area where our unit differs from the rest of the University Library system, in both functions as well as necessary funding. There are two main ways we provide access to our unique items. First, as mentioned in the previous section, our digitization initiatives make our resources available to researchers worldwide, many of whom do not have the means to physically travel to our library. Secondly, we host exhibits, engage in outreach to academic departments, and create online guides and tutorials to make our rare materials more visible to our community. These functions are the product of a relatively recent shift from a collection-centered approach, where simply owning an impressive collection was sufficient, to a user-centered approach, where what we do is intimately tied to the needs of students, faculty, staff, community members and scholars worldwide. In contrast to the rest of the library, our stacks are closed, which means that one cannot simply go into the vault and browse around. Because of this, active promotion of our collections is necessary to ensure that they do not sit unknown on our shelves behind lock and key. We incur costs hosting events for the university community, inviting guest lecturers to campus to speak about particular important items, curating exhibits and displaying them in a way that is educational, interesting, but also safe and secure.

In terms of staff and dedicated functions, there are a number of factors that differentiate our department from the rest of the library system. First, it is a fact that just about all of the library is behind on cataloging and would benefit from additional help in that regard. But rare books cataloging requires a set of more specialized skills, including a close knowledge of descriptive and analytical bibliography as well as multiple foreign languages. Thus, in recruiting part-time and project help, as well as full-time positions, these stricter requirements make it necessary to invest more resources to attract qualified candidates and train them after hiring. We have several parts of our collection sitting in the vault uncatalogued, as do many other library units. But only in our case are some of the items unique, and we feel it is a priority to get them catalogued as soon as possible so that researchers become aware of what even exists in a particular time period.

Our unit also acquires items in a matter wholly distinct from the rest of the library system. Over the years, we have developed particular subject areas where our collection is strongest, and many times an item on the open market fits in perfectly with the rest of our holdings, and thus the best place for it is the university, not a private collection where it will usually be unavailable for use by scholars or the general public. Many times these acquisitions are costly, but they are necessary in enriching our collection and promoting the greater societal good. We also acquire many items through private donations, which requires much labor in both transportation and processing, as well as the contracting of lawyers to draft up policies for storage and ownership concerns.


Libraries are in state of flux today, with many main collections shifting to electronic, subscription-based models. In an era where many library materials are leased, not owned in a physical sense, special collections such as rare books, manuscripts, photographs, maps and artwork, are what sets libraries apart. We collect, preserve, promote and make available fascinating and valuable items where the physical characteristics are just as crucial as the words on the page.

What’s Wrong with Theft and Security in Special Collections? A Study of the RBMS Guidelines

Security in special collections[1] can refer to the prevention of two separate things: the theft of rare materials and incidental damage at the hands of patrons or staff. For the purposes of this paper I will focus on the former, although accidental harm and gradual wear can at times be an even larger concern for a special collections library.

Due to a number of high-profile cases in recent years, these types of cultural thefts have been brought to the attention of the mainstream media, increasing public awareness of the value of the rare items held by special collections libraries. At the same time, the internet age has greatly changed the antiquarian book trade (Rostenberg and Stern), and the newfound ease of reaching a global marketplace can serve as a temptation for potential rare book thieves.

The response from the library community has been quite positive, as the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of ACRL has published an updated document titled Guidelines Regarding Security and Theft in Special Collections and put together a number of security resources and theft reports on its website.

Current special collections security philosophy, however, as represented in these security guidelines, does not fully address numerous issues including the realities of staffing and budget in special collections libraries, the impact of the digital age, access, and institutional culture. In this paper I will consider the cases of several recent special collections thefts in order to explore the limits of these guidelines and the continuing challenges in the area of special collections security against theft.

First, many of the RBMS security guidelines, although well-intentioned, are impractical, in both terms of available resources and their utility in the event of a real theft. The guidelines advocate the designation of a Library Security Officer (LSO) to oversee the writing of an official security policy to prevent theft as well as an action plan in the event of a theft. Many of the details, though, including increased security staff to monitor patrons, installation of security cameras, full descriptive cataloging and marking of items, are often unrealistic in many special collections due to large collections or staff and budgetary shortages.

Kovarsky points out that these types of procedures “can be a substantial chore in terms of staff time and effort, especially within a very large collection with a substantial cataloging/marking backlog.” Other suggestions, such as the installation of security cameras and other means of physical security, “can be problematic for many less affluent institutions, unable to afford the personnel, technology or physical plant required for the task.”

Other security guidelines relate to things such as the internalization of various local laws, following detailed procedures after a theft, and even having staff “request that the police officer place the suspect under arrest” if they determine there to be probable cause. Not only is a great deal of staff time required in order to get to this level of procedural and legal knowledge, which is unlikely to be prioritized by a supervisor, but during an actual emergency, it is practically impossible to recall and follow such a formal policy.

In a 2004 case at Transylvania University, for example, in which students stole a number of rare books from the special collections library, physical force was used as the special collections librarian was zapped with a stun gun. The situation led to a foot chase, “with (head librarian) Ms. (Susan) Brown and other librarians in hot pursuit” of the thieves, before they eventually escaped in a van. Later, the police were called but were unable to document the crime scene as the items taken from special collections but left in the building had already been “collected and returned to their proper places” by librarians (United States v. Allen et al).

This ugly situation raises a number of questions that cannot neatly be answered: what are librarians to do in the event of a theft-in-progress? Should they pursue an escaping suspect, even if he or she may be armed or dangerous? The guidelines only say to “follow institutional policies and applicable state laws concerning the incident,” but in the Transylvania case, the librarians were clearly shaken and acting in the heat of the moment, as is only natural in such a situation. Similarly, their decision to return the materials to their proper places was likely a result of the stress of the events, even if the “correct” response was to leave the crime scene intact for law enforcement.

This example is not meant to suggest that such thefts are typical, or that special collections librarians should fear being physically assaulted, as the use of force is extremely rare in cultural heritage thefts, but it does help demonstrate the wide-ranging techniques of thieves, which can be impossible to capture in a written security policy. In addition to the Transylvania students who used a stun pen, Daniel Spiegelman climbed up an old dumbwaiter in the stacks and unscrewed a wall in order to get into the special collections at Columbia University, where he stole rare books, maps and letters (McDade). David Breithaupt convinced Kenyon College security guards and cleaning staff to let him into the special collections where he would steal upwards of 250 rare books, manuscripts and letters (McDade 24). The suggestions for securing the facility in the guidelines—minimizing access points, designating an easily observed reading room, controlling key checkout—can always be circumvented by a dedicated enough thief. And as demonstrated in the Kenyon case, the security policy often needs to be understood by staff in other campus departments to be effective, which is not usually a realistic scenario.

So of what use, then, is an LSO and a formal security policy if it is not useful in a the event of a real theft?

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