A brief history of the Lilly Library

Lilly Library Bicentennial Mark

Your curiosity is the key. Use it to open the door to tales told a thousand times and stories still waiting for a voice. Follow your passion to delicate diaries, penciled drafts, and some of the most beautiful and celebrated books ever produced by hand or machine.

At the Lilly Library, knowledge is our treasure and we have spent the last half century collecting it for you.

Building a legacy


A circular image is shown depicting the book seal used by J.K. Lilly, Jr.

Between 1954 and 1957, Josiah Kirby Lilly, Jr. donated his collection of rare books and manuscripts – widely considered to be one of the finest private libraries in the world - to Indiana University.  As he had envisioned, these 20,000 printed books and 17,000 manuscripts had a transformative effect on the intellectual life of the University, and in turn, the state of Indiana. President Herman B Wells immediately recognized the collection’s profound significance and determined a freestanding library was required to not only care for the materials, but to establish and proclaim IU’s esteemed position as caretakers and curators of the state’s most valuable literary legacy.

Named "The Lilly Library," in honor of the Lilly family, the limestone structure was placed at the heart a growing campus, to serve, along with the School of Fine Arts; the University's Art Museum, and the Indiana University Auditorium, as the University's "Fine Arts Plaza" -- Indiana’s center for the arts and humanities, available to all.

In October 1960, J.K. Lilly and Herman B Wells together opened the doors to the Lilly Library’s collection – a total of some 100,000 printed books and nearly 1,000,000 manuscripts – representing decades of Indiana University effort toward establishing itself as one of America’s vanguard research institutions.  Today, thousands travel through this same threshold to reach the strengthening collections of more than 450,000 rare books and 8.5 million manuscripts.

Known around the world, the Lilly Library is home to collections of cultural and literary artifacts documenting humanity’s highest achievements.   A few of our most famous items include the first printed edition of The Canterbury Tales; many beautifully illuminated medieval books of hours; the Boxer Codex, a unique 16th-century manuscript depiction of the people of the Philippines and Far East; Thomas Jefferson’s personal copy of the first printing of the Bill of Rights; and the personal and fascinating archives of cultural luminaries such as Orson Welles, Sylvia Plath, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

As president of Eli Lilly and Company from 1948 to 1953, J.K. Lilly, Jr. is perhaps best known for his role in founding Lilly Endowment, Inc.  A prolific collector and member of the exclusive Grolier Club, he acquired an astonishing 94 of the Grolier “One Hundred Books Famous in English Literature” and donated all of them to IU.  Mr. Lilly’s collection includes treasures such as a First Folio of the works of William Shakespeare, the first printing of the American Declaration of Independence, and the original manuscript of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. 

Today, 60 years later, the Lilly Library continues as guardian—both of J.K. Lilly, Jr.’s literary treasures and of Herman B Wells’ vision to share them with the world.