Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA)/American Bible Society

6/28/13 I recently visited the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA) at the American Bible Society to learn about their collection and internships.  This collection has 46,000 volumes, all Bibles.

Since 1816, the mission of the American Bible Society has been to provide scripture in a language people can understand at an affordable price. For its first 150 years, ABS focused on the production and facilitation of Bible translations in many languages. The collection was started shortly after its founding in 1817 and currently includes Bibles in approximately 2,500 languages, living and extinct.  The Society has been at its current location on the upper west side since the 1960s, and is one of the oldest continuously operating publishers in the U.S., although they no longer print on site.

In 1817, when ABS first advertised the launching of its Biblical library, the founders focused their interest on collecting historical Bibles. Over time, the Library changed its focus to extensively collect recent Bible translations, in order to support the mission of the Society. Today, the collection attempts to document the development of Bible translation worldwide.

Clare Manias, the Conservator of the Rare Bible Collection, gave me a tour that included the Library, the Rare Book Collection and the Conservation Lab.  She described what some of the challenges are of caring for these venerable books, some finely bound in leather or vellum, some with metal bosses and clasps, and still others with homemade bindings or amateur repairs.

During my visit I also met Dr. Liana Lupas, Curator of the Rare Bible Collection, who introduced herself as “the only librarian in the world who takes care of one book”.  She explained that of the more than 2,000 languages represented in the Bibles in the collection, about 10 of them cover 95% of the world’s population.  She also said that the number of languages in which at least part of the Bible has been printed grows by 15 or 20 per year.

The collection is organized by language first, then by date of publication, because, of course, subject headings would not be helpful here.  There is also a geographical order, as each language is assigned to a country (even if the language is spoken in many countries) and arranged by continent.

Among the many fascinating and rare items in this collection are audio scriptures for people who cannot read, including a “finger-phono” (a kind of audio disk which is powered by someone’s finger rotating it in a circle, for use in places where there is no electricity), a multi-volume Braille Bible that once belonged to Helen Keller, and another Bible for the blind with raised letters and no ink.  I had the privilege of seeing one of the oldest Bibles in the collection, a big gorgeous volume in Latin, bound in white leather, that dates from “not after 1474”.

Among the possible assignments for interns at the site are conservation projects such as measuring rare books for custom housings, and cleaning and stabilization of fragile items.  There is also a research component, for determining the best way to house “objects and books of unusual materials and shapes, such as a book with silver covers [and] scrolls, and books with chains”. Other ongoing and special project assignments are possible in the Rare Book Collection, including shelf reading and other preparations for shifting of a portion of the collection.

If you are interested in doing an internship at MOBIA/The American Bible Society, please contact Clare Manias, by emailing her at cmanias@mobia.org with a resume and cover letter. An internship in conservation requires interest in preservation and working with Special Collections as well as hand skills, so include a short description of your creative interests as well as your library and work experience.

Many thanks to Clare Manias and Liana Lupas for the information for this profile.

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Ellen Mehling, MSLIS, Director of Internships