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U of M libraries win prestigious national award

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A view of the stacks in the Elmer L. Andersen Library caverns.
A view of the stacks in the Elmer L. Andersen Library caverns on July 11, 2017.
Peter Cox | MPR News

Jennifer Gunn has a confession to make.   

"I'm a total library geek," the University of Minnesota associate professor said. "And that's because I'm a historian of medicine and so in my own work I use library collections extensively."  

She's happy to give a tour of her favorite library on campus, the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine.

  Among the bookcases and archives is a copy of Andreas Vesalius' "On the Fabric of the Human Body," which contains some of the first naturalistic images of human bodies ever printed in text, according to assistant library curator Emily Beck.

  There are 16 known copies of the book, and the U's is a first-edition dating back to the 16th century.  

Curator Emily Beck shows a rare text.
Curator Emily Beck shows a rare text at the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine.
Peter Cox | MPR News

Anyone can come in and ask to see that book. But the library also put it online.

It's an effort to share rare archives with the world. That's part of why the university's library system won the 2017 National Medal for Museum and Library Service. Gunn will accept the award Monday in Washington, D.C.  

"What's amazing about the University of Minnesota is that they have undertaken several initiatives that really reach outside the physical walls of their institution," said Kathryn Matthew, director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services. "In fact, they serve the entire state."  

To understand the vastness of the U's library system, dive 85 feet below the Elmer L. Anderson Library on the West Bank. 

  Inside the caverns, it kind of looks like the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. There are long rows of towering shelves, filled with books and boxes. 

  Each has a code on it so staff can pinpoint the location of any book in the collection. "All 1.5 million of them," said Kris Kiesling, the director of the library's archives and special collections. "In case someone wants them on interlibrary loan or they want to have an article copied from a journal, or something like that. Their efforts here make us the No. 1 lending library in the country."

  In addition to Minitex, the libraries' regional sharing program, students can reap the benefits of such a massive collection.

  Dunn said she's loved watching students open books from the 1600s, or sift through correspondence from two centuries ago.  

"All of that has such a different effect in making history come alive for students," she said. "And the fact that the libraries and the archives actively want their collections used not just by scholars, but also by students in teaching, that was just transformative for me here."