What is the Tower Collection?

Emma Sawatzky, Staff Writer

November 13, 2023

A little-known yet vital resource to our school community exists behind the Putnam Library’s Glass Room. A treasure trove of over 1,300 rare books, the Tower Collection encapsulates the rich history of bookmaking and the evolution of printing. 

The Tower Collection is named in honor of Walter Tower, who is remembered by Assistant Head of School and Head of Middle School John Gifford as “a wonderful, smart, passionate man.” A literary connoisseur deeply involved in the world of printing, Tower worked as the president of the Nimrod Press. Through his experience in printing and literature, he acquired an extensive collection of rare books. Tower and his wife, June, sent three of their children to Nobles, with the youngest graduating in 1980. Years later, Tower decided that Nobles was a fitting home for a portion of his collection, and in 1999, the Tower Collection was born. 

Although Tower passed away in 2019, his legacy lives on in the Nobles community through students who continue to benefit from this phenomenal resource. 24 years after Tower’s donation, history and art classes have the privilege of studying and exploring all that the Tower Collection has to offer.

Librarian Emily Tragert highlights the collection’s Gutenberg Bible page as one of the most important artifacts in the history of printing. “It’s really cool that we have one,” Tragert said. The page is from the Book of Numbers and is one of the older artifacts in the collection, dating back to 1455. At this point, Johannes Gutenberg had just revolutionized printing technology, and the Bible page marks the beginning of ‘movable type’ as a prevalent practice. Gutenberg’s predecessors would have carved out entire pages at a time in order to print them, which was tedious and wasteful. Movable type allowed for individual letters to be reset and reused, serving as a groundbreaking development for the time.

As such, this page is one of the most valuable in the collection. Notably, though, it is not as ornately decorated as many other artifacts of its caliber. Often, people would buy an excerpt of the Gutenberg Bible in black ink and adorn the margins with drawings and musings. Although the original owner of the Tower Collection’s page is unknown, it is evident that they were a minimalistic soul: the page remains largely unmarked.

By 1493, printing had evolved leaps and bounds, and the collection’s Nuremberg Chronicle is no exception. “Printing was this new, shiny technology. And when we think about technology now, people love showing off with it, so they put together this book to show off,” Tragert said. A multifaceted resource, the Nuremberg Chronicle contains layers of religious, intellectual, and even political history. Anton Koberger was responsible for the printing and distribution of the book, recruiting the leading humanist writers and woodcut artists to compile this masterpiece. 

Evidently, the Tower Collection boasts incredible prestige: a single page of the Gutenberg Bible is worth at least $75,000. However, the collection’s broad scope also solidifies it as an invaluable resource to the school community. “What makes it cool is that someone might want to look at Edith Wharton, and someone else might want to look at the Nuremberg Chronicle,” Tragert said. 

The collection was acquired during the time of the old library, meaning the books resided in a room not designed for their preservation. When the Putnam Library was constructed, a room with climate control and fire suppression was key in the interest of protecting the Tower Collection. A product of careful planning and meticulous design, the current setup is thought to be the best choice for the school. 

Even so, the secluded nature of the Rare Books room poses the question of accessibility to the community. Most students do not know where it is, what it is, or the depth that engaging with its content could add to their academic experience. It has proven difficult to weigh priorities in terms of the Tower Collection, understanding that while the books are meant to be used, there is inherent risk involved with exposure to environmental hazards. “It can’t just be like a regular book that you check out from the library,” said Gifford. 

When taking these risks into consideration, the ultimate purpose of the donation remains a guidepost for the way in which the books are treated. This incredible resource is intended to serve the community, and Tragert and Gifford are two among many who will continue to care for the Tower Collection and uphold its considerable legacy.

(Photo Credit: Avery Winder)

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