Column: Visiting Indiana University’s Lilly Library


With our tour of Alaska over, we will visit often-overlooked places in and around Indianapolis. Today, we explore the Lilly Library in Bloomington.

By 1950, Josiah K. Lilly Jr., then president of Eli Lilly & Co., had amassed an extraordinary collection of rare books, manuscripts and works of art. Between 1954 and 1957, he donated thousands of those items to Indiana University, forming the nucleus of the Lilly Library, which opened in 1960 in a limestone building just south of Showalter Fountain. Hundreds of thousands of items have since been added to the collection, many donated by collectors. When the 52,516-square-foot building was reconfigured in 2019 to accommodate its growing collection, murals were added to the reading room.

The Lilly Library’s 450,000 books include one of only 11 Gutenberg Bibles in the United States; the “Nuremberg Chronicles,” an elaborately illustrated account of the history of the world published in 149; the first printed edition of “Canterbury Tales;” the first folio of Shakespeare’s collected works, published in London in 1623; and Thomas Jefferson’s personal copy of the first printing of the Bill of Rights. The 8.5 million manuscripts include those for “Peter Pan” and “Auld Lang Syne” and two letters written by George Washington, one to Patrick Henry turning down a proposed stock gift and the other accepting the presidency. Sixteen-thousand miniature books, the world’s largest collection, include tiny versions of the Bible and Bhagavad Gita. Many of the 30,000 mechanical puzzles are displayed in the separate Slocum Room, with some available for solving. An eclectic collection of Americana includes two locks of Edgar Allen Poe’s hair, one sent in a letter to a lover just before his death, and four Oscars won by director John Ford.

The Lilly Library is open for research by appointment only. Guided tours are available every Friday at 2 p.m.