South

Some public libraries home to rare and valuable treasures

Debee Tlumacki for The Boston Globe

"After the Storm," a painting by Giovanni Castano, hangs on the wall at the Brockton Public Library.

On the second floor of the Brockton Public Library, just past an area where patrons are engrossed in school assignment research, books, and the glare of public computer screens, is a small meeting room that Lucia Shannon, head of adult services, opens with a key.

An ordinary office with a conference table as its centerpiece has been transformed by a handful of beautifully framed works of art in different styles, all prominently displayed. Shannon immediately looked toward an 1892 work titled “Nude (Female)” by Boston-born figure painter Louis Kronberg.

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The Gardner Museum in Boston, “on the first level, they have a Kronberg over there,” she said, before switching to a conspiratorial whisper, “but I think ours is better.”

The Kronberg, valued at $5,000, and Edmund C. Tarbell’s “The Picture Hat” (inset top left) are among several dozen works of fine art, mostly from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, given to the Brockton Public Library since its founding in 1893. Some of the pieces were appraised for as much as $115,000 in 2002, Shannon said.

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When it comes to where one might find rare works of art or valuable historical artifacts, most people think of museums or perhaps the Boston Public Library, particularly after the high-profile “loss” earlier this year of valuable prints by Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt that were ultimately found 80 feet from where they should have been filed.

Many would be surprised to find, housed amid the book and DVD collections in many local public libraries, historical treasures ranging from the rare and valuable to the curious, such as Woburn’s swatch of the wool coat Abraham Lincoln was wearing when he was assassinated.

For the most part, local libraries are not in the business of actively collecting historical artifacts, but rather have amassed a hodgepodge of donated items of historical value and interest, said Jake Sadow, statewide digitization project archivist with the Boston Public Library.

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“There is no rule for what you might find, or how they would make it available,” Sadow said.

Case in point, the Fiske Public Library in Wrentham is home to a bathing suit that belonged to writer Helen Keller , who around 1900 frequented a local boathouse on Lake Archer that belonged to the family of her friend Elsie Winter George.

“I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t know,” said Mary Tobichuk, the library’s director, about how the library came to possess the deaf-blind activist’s bathing suit, a black linen two-piece composed of a long flowy sleeveless top and bloomers, and a pair of black knee-high stockings.

Stored in the same tissue-lined box as Keller’s is George’s swimsuit, a linen two-piece with a cobalt short-sleeve top and below-the-knee skirt.

Reference librarian Claudia Schumacher is also fuzzy on the details, but said the pieces were donated at some point to the Wrentham Historical Society, which asked that they be stored at the library. The society has since disbanded, raising the question whether the library is now the owner of the bathing suits, Schumacher said.

Tobichuk said both swimsuits were photographed, digitized, and entered into Digital Commonwealth , an online, searchable database launched as an initiative between a Newton-based nonprofit, Digital Commonwealth Inc., and the Boston Public Library.

Anything digitized and posted at www.digitalcommonwealth.org is also sent to the Digital Library of America , adding to its collection from institutions across the country, said Celeste Bruno, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners .

“It’s really amazing stuff: rare maps, antislavery transcripts, and the fun stuff like Leslie Jones . . . who photographed dogs,” Bruno said. “Digitization is that entryway in that you say, ‘I have to see that in person.’ And the cool thing is that you can. It’s free!”

In Brockton, the artwork and some items relating to the city’s storied shoemaking past are in the process of being uploaded to Digital Commonwealth. Most of the artwork is displayed in public areas of the library, including a grand piece titled “The Buccaneers,” by renowned marine artist Frederick J. Waugh, in the Teen Zone room. In 2002, the last time the library had its works appraised, the 1910 piece was valued at $100,000, Shannon said.

Another notable piece is Thomas Dewing’s “Green and White,” a 1910 pastel of a woman in a gown sitting on a bench. It was once loaned to the Brooklyn Museum and valued at $45,000, Shannon said. Other artists whose works are featured include John Henry Twachtman and Thomas Eakins , whose portrait of the donor of the painting was valued at $115,000 in 2002.

Some pieces are hung away from the public eye in library offices, including a 17th-century Dutch still life by Jan Davidsz. de Heem valued at $25,000. Those pieces can be seen by way of tours, Shannon said.

Older library buildings, like the Woburn Public Library, have limited space to display all of their treasures. Had it not been for a Civil War encampment hosted by the library last month, one of its most rare artifacts — the small piece of President Lincoln’s coat — would not have been on public display, said Kathleen O’Doherty, the library’s director.

Lincoln’s wife, Mary, gave the coat to the couple’s favorite White House doorman, Alphonse Donn, who cut off pieces of it to give away as mementos to his visitors, according to a narrative from the Ford’s Theatre museum in Washington, D.C., where the coat is displayed. The approximately 1½-inch snippet at the Woburn library was donated in 1892 by one of Mary’s nephews, according to the library’s archives.

Most of the items on exhibit throughout the building are part of the library’s art collection, which includes pieces by Benjamin Champney , a 19th-century painter renowned for his White Mountain works.

The 136-year-old building also boasts a museum on the top floor full of treasures, including two letters from 1776 and 1783 signed by George Washington. In one he inquires about buying china and wine for his home, and in the other he is complaining to the Continental Congress. In the museum is also an original copy of the first published history of New England from 1654, as well as a book of notable autographs, among them the signatures of Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr .

The museum, however, is not open to the public except for a few scheduled tours, due to its winding staircases that make it inaccessible to people with physical disabilities, O’Doherty said. That will change next year, when the library is slated to undergo a $31.5 million expansion . O’Doherty said she hopes the new addition will help to at least double the library’s current average of 150,000 annual visitors.

“We hope that allows us to be able to display the artifacts that we have,” O’Doherty said. “These things, they have a value, and part of the value is that they belong to the community.”

Those artifacts also include oddities like a World War I German machine gun, one of the few things in the collection that stumps O’Doherty.

“I don’t know how it ended up here,” she said.

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.
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