The Marriott Library's rare books division never once considered seeking out an original pair of Lewis Carroll's celebrated children's books, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There.
So when an anonymous donor came forward with first editions of both titles, dressed in the gilt pictorial cloth bindings from the day they came off the London press, the news seemed as fantastical as Alice's fall down a rabbit hole.
"We all had grins on our faces the rest of the week," said Luise Poulton, rare books manager for the library. Make that Cheshire grins.
Poulton said news of the donation came in the middle of December, but was made official this week, when the volumes were couched in the Special Collections Reading Room on the fourth floor of the J. Willard Marriott Library on the University of Utah campus.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was first published in 1866, but released in December 1865 in time for Christmas, with 4,000 copies issued. Written by the shy mathematician and logician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson under the pen name of Carroll for Alice Liddell and her two sisters, the book was never intended for a wide audience until a friend of Dodgson's persuaded him to publish it.
After the success of the first Alice book, Dodgson wrote its sequel, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, published in 1872 with a first-edition run of 9,000 copies.
Together the books are valued at $30,000. Their true worth resides beyond dollar signs, Poulton said, given their impact on the publishing world. More than 100 years before the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series, and even decades before Huckleberry Finn, the Alice books marked the first time in publishing history that stories written for children crossed over into an adult readership. Along with the tales of Edgar Allan Poe, many scholars also consider them a starting point of the fantasy genre in literature.
"As pieces of literature, they're not really my cup of tea," Poulton said. "A little girl falling down a deep hole is the beginning of creepiness, but there's a real love affair people have with these weird stories and characters."
Gregory Thompson, associate dean of special collections at the library, said the books are an exceptional representation of mid-19th-century English publishing, all the more stunning because they feature all 92 of artist John Tenniel's famous drawings.
"It's a very unusual and wonderful gift," Thompson said.
The anonymity requested by the donor suits the nature of the Alice books themselves, filled as they are with riddles and logic games.
"It's pretty obscure, but that's what the donor wanted," Poulton said.
The Alice books join other esteemed first-edition books in the library's special collections, including Charles Darwin's On The Origin of Species, Isaac Newton's Principia and Galileo Galilei's Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.
Patrons may see individual titles in the library's special collections by requesting them from a staff members at the reference desk. Volumes may be seen only in a designated reading room under staff supervision, but only after your personal belongings are placed in a locker. No photographs are allowed.
"These books are certainly a great addition to that collection, and one that all residents of the state can be proud of," Poulton said. "I like to call it 'The greatest collection of rare books some people would consider smack dab in the middle of nowhere.'"
See the original 'Alice' books
When • Special collections' hours Mondays-Fridays, 8 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturdays, 9:15 a.m.-6 p.m.
Where • Marriott Library fourth floor, 295 S. 1500 East on University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City.
Info • Call 801-581-8863, 801-581-3886 or visit www.lib.utah.edu/collections/special-collections/ for more information.