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Library of biblical proportions


The American Bible Society’s building at 1865 Broadway houses the first Bible published in North America and a French Bible once baked into a loaf of bread.

The society’s collection of Bibles is the largest in the Western Hemisphere (second-largest in the world after the British Foreign Bible Society’s collection at Cambridge University), according to society librarian Liana Lupas.

The first North American Bible -- the most valuable book in the collection, Lupas said -- was published in 1663 in the language of Native Americans in the Massachusetts Bay area. Printing was arranged by John Eliot, a zealous Puritan known as "Apostle to the Indians," with money from an English corporation.

The French Bible that survived baking with only the edges of pages singed was owned by the Charbonniers, a family of Huguenots pressed to hide the book from soldiers who were marching toward the farm. In 16th-century France, Bible-owning by commoners -- and the literacy it bred -- was considered a threat to the monarchy. Bible owners often paid with their lives.

Lupas, another Catholic at the society and formerly a classics professor in Romania, said the society’s library -- which, along with its archives, is available to scholars for research -- serves as a depository for new translations. The library contains some 53,000 volumes in 2,200 languages and dialects -- virtually all of the 2,212 languages and dialects into which the Bible, or part of it, has been translated.

The society also provides a reader’s service librarian, Jacqueline Sapiie, who takes calls from people with questions about the Bible at (212) 408-1203.

The collection, though mostly books, contains a manuscript that dates to the 13th century and four leaves of the Gutenberg Bible --- the most valuable book in the world until a sale of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales sold at auction last July for $7.5 million. That price topped the $5.39 million that a Japanese bookseller had paid for Volume I of a two-volume Gutenberg Bible in 1987. Only 48 Gutenberg Bibles survive of about 185 believed printed.

National Catholic Reporter, May 14, 1999