Collections in Storage May End Up Becoming Treasure Trove for Academics

Posted on Dec 28 2009 - 9:36am by John Stevens

Some people may wonder why anyone would think it was worth it to keep a large collection of books (or stamps, doll houses, antique toys, or any other kind of collection) in self-storage. Collecting thousands of items related to one topic might seem like an endless, thankless task. But one reason to persist with a collecting hobby is that books, documents, antiques, and artwork may someday be in demand by academic institutions or museums. For example, today anyone looking for a repository of Sherlock Holmes memorabilia need look no farther than the University of Minnesota, thanks in large part to generous donations from private collectors.

The collection at the University of Minnesota began in 1974, when the university bought private collector James C. Iraldi’s 160 volumes of Holmes first editions and periodicals featuring stories about Holmes. Then, in 1978, the widow of Mayo Clinic doctor Philip S. Hench, who was a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, donated his rather extensive Holmes collection. Later, Los Angeles lawyer Les Klinger, the author of The Annotated Sherlock Holmes series, who also provided guidance for Sherlock Holmes, the movie, donated his papers to the library. 

Through what Tim Johnson, the curator of special collections and rare books for the University of Minnesota Libraries, calls a “happy series of accidents,” and the generosity of private collectors such as Iraldi, Hench, and Klinger, the University of Minnesota has built its Holmes collection up to 15,000 volumes. With the other pieces of Holmes memorabilia that have been donated by several generous collectors, the library has more than 60,000 Holmes-related items. The Holmes collection includes Holmes-related toys, games, posters, and recordings. It has many magnifying glasses. It also has an ice cream carton with a cartoon cow wearing Holmes’ famous cap and a pillow with a picture depicting the Muppet character Sherlock Hemlock from Sesame Street. The collection includes copies of Holmes stories that were owned by the last empress of Russia, and an original manuscript page from The Hound of the Baskervilles. It is such a vast collection that Klinger calls it the “first stop for anybody doing research” about Holmes. “If you’re looking for something,” he marvels, “it’s probably in the collection.” 

The University of Minnesota has renovated an underground cavern in which to store its Holmes collection. The cavern is climate-controlled and lies about 85 feet below ground level at the Elmer L. Andersen Library on the U of M campus.