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DePaul blessed with a Dickens archive strong on ‘Christmas Carol’

Kathryn DeGraff shows an 1844 first editiA Christmas Carol this part Dickens collectiDePaul University's RichardsLibrary Chicago Ill. Wednesday December 19

Kathryn DeGraff shows an 1844 first edition of A Christmas Carol that is part of the Dickens collection at DePaul University's Richardson Library in Chicago, Ill., on Wednesday, December 19, 2012. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 22, 2013 6:25AM

There are no twinkling lights, North Pole elves or candy canes, but tucked into a quiet third-floor office in DePaul University’s Richardson Library is a rare collection of books that speaks to the essence of the modern Christmas experience.

DePaul’s library, 2350 N. Kenmore, is home to more than 1,000 volumes and items relating to Charles Dickens, with an emphasis on “A Christmas Carol.”

“When Dickens wrote ‘A Christmas Carol,’ Christmas was not the holiday we know today,” said Kathryn DeGraff, who has curated the Dickens collection since 1980. “ ‘A Christmas Carol’ was the right story at the right time, and Dickens was clearly the right author for it.”

Dickens penned the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, his spunky son Tiny Tim and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come in 1843 as a quick way to make a buck. When it was published, Christmas celebrations were making a comeback from a series of Puritanical rules meant to quash what was formerly a bawdy medieval celebration. Dickens’ iconic story and character became synonymous with the modern-day Christmas celebration.

“This is really about the power of family but it’s also a very important story about the power of giving,” DeGraff said. “By the end [Scrooge] is distributing charity.”

DeGraff sees the roots of not only the family Christmas celebration in the book.

“At the very end, the morning after Christmas, Bob Cratchit and Scrooge share a glass of smoking bishop” — a hot, spiced wine, DeGraff said. “In a way, it’s kind of the first office party.”

An Ottawa, Ill.-based salesman, Samuel Baldwin Bradford, started collecting the Dickens books in the 1920s. He presented his collection — at that time more than 500 volumes plus Dickens-related memorabilia — to DePaul in 1972, drawn to the university in part by a prominent Dickens scholar working in the English department. Though it is a large collection, DePaul’s holdings are significantly smaller than several other Dickens collections that include his manuscripts.

DeGraff was hired as a librarian at DePaul in 1972, and in 1980 she began working in special collections. She curated the Dickens collection before retiring in August, though she still works as a consultant on the project.

The books vary from a first edition, published in 1844, to a first American edition, published in 1868. A 1928 edition was re-named “A Christmas Carol/The Story of a Sale,” and features sales advice in red print along the books edges. “HANUKKAH, SHMANUKKAH!,” published in 2005, takes the story and gives it a Jewish twist.

A greeting card shows Scrooge visited by the ghost of Marley — reggae legend Bob Marley. Last year DeGraff added a bottle of Samuel Adams Old Fezziwig Ale to the collection.

Library visitors have included local students preparing for theater productions of “A Christmas Carol,” members of a local Dickens fan club and a few people who just wanted to read the book.

While the books can’t be checked out, they are open and available to anyone who might want to get a glimpse of the first illustrations of Tiny Tim with his single crutch and newsboy cap.

“It’s a story of redemption, it’s a story of families,” DeGraff said. “Even if you’ve never read it, you know the story of ‘A Christmas Carol.’ ”

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