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Published November 25 2012

Spurred by curiosity, students search for oldest book in NDSU’s library

FARGO – It may be hard to remember, what with the Internet these days, but there actually are books in our libraries.

And some of them are old. In some cases, really old.

That was the realization this fall by North Dakota State University students Linda Norland and Jack Dura, who decided they wanted to find the oldest book in NDSU’s library.

The two friends “like to explore,” they said. This summer, for example, they sought out all the statues on NDSU’s campus just for the fun of it.

Then, during an ordinary visit to the library this fall, Dura found what he thought was a particularly old book, and that got their wheels turning.

“I found a book from 1848, and we decided we wanted to find a book that was way older,” Dura said.

For the first 10 minutes, they kept their sights narrow, searching the stacks manually.

By the time those 10 minutes were over, they started to think a lot bigger. What, they asked each other, might be the oldest book not just in their immediate vicinity, but rather in the entire library?

To get there, they (smartly) realized that looking through the books by hand likely wasn’t going to uncover the answer.

“We looked around a little bit more and then decided that searching through the shelves probably wasn’t the best way to do this,” Norland says.

Instead, they sought professional help from Jennifer Fairall, NDSU’s digital initiatives and metadata librarian.

Fairall admits she initially was a bit stumped by the request.

“I was fascinated by it because I had never thought about it,” she says. “It got me thinking, ‘how do I get that information for them?’”

After sorting and searching with the library’s computer system, Fairall found, among the almost 1 million books in the library, “The Government of Cattell,” written by Leonard Mascal and published in 1627.

The book’s full title is “The Government of Cattell Divided Into Three Books: The First Entreating of Oxen, Kine and Calves…: The Second Discouring of the Government of Horses, With Approved Medicines Against Most Diseases,” and is available for purchase through retailers like Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble.

For Fairall, who has worked at the library for three years, the fact that the oldest book was about, well, cows, was unexpected.

“I knew there were some old books floating around, but I was surprised that it was on agriculture, that it wasn’t an old novel or an old book of poetry,” she said, but acknowledged it’s not that surprising because of NDSU’s deep ag roots. The school originally was known as the North Dakota Agricultural College.

Even though their question was answered, Norland and Dura weren’t done. They wanted to actually look through the book to find out what it was all about it. (They actually kept it too long, they said, and racked up a bit of a fine, though the library happily waived it for them.)

For Fairall, the experience was a reminder that libraries always will be, at their heart, about books.

“We still have to have the books to complement the electronic collection,” she said.

Norland and Dura agree.

“Students at NDSU mostly come to the library for seating space or for the computers,” Norland said. “They kind of forget that there are books they can read.”

Until their next investigation, the duo is relishing in the success of a completed search, one that reminded them that if you’re looking for history, a library is a good place to start.

“People don’t think to look in the library much,” Norland says. “There are all sorts of interesting things if you look for it.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sam Benshoof at (701) 241-5535