The Sherlock Holmes Collections

A Conversation with Tim Johnson

Tim Johnson, curator of special collections and rare books in the Archives and Special Collections Department of the University of Minnesota Libraries, talks to Choice about the Sherlock Holmes Collections, which form the world’s largest selection of content related to Sherlock Holmes.

How would you describe this collection to a perfect stranger?

The Sherlock Holmes Collections is really a collection of collections attempting to document one of the world’s best literary characters, Sherlock Holmes, in popular culture. Because Mr. Holmes plays so well in any medium, and has done so since his appearance in 1887, the Collections include not only books and periodicals but other formats as well. These range from traditional audio-visual formats such as film, tapes, slides, CDs, and DVDs to less traditional forms such as board games, puzzles, restaurant menus, stuffed animals, clothing, sculpture, candy, and carved bars of soap. We aspire to document Holmes in all his manifestations, from all corners of the Sherlockian universe, be it from established literary societies to newer fandoms. You name it; if it has something to do with Holmes, we want it represented in the Collections.

Tim Johnson oversees the University Libraries main rare book collection and numerous special collections. His previous experience includes work as a reference/instructional services librarian, medical librarian, library director, and director of archives. He is active in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of ACRL. Folks can follow him on Twitter @UMNBookworm and follow the Sherlock Holmes Collections @SherlockUMN

Who is the intended audience of the Sherlock Holmes Collections? How do you envision undergraduates using it?

Since the collections reside at Minnesota’s land-grant university, our audience is the broadest possible and global in scope. We’ve worked with preschool children, adults in their ninth decade, and everyone in between. Recently, we hosted a German Fulbright doctoral student who needed our collections for her dissertation. Other doctoral students and researchers have come from the United Kingdom, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, and elsewhere. Undergraduates from the University and other institutions in the metropolitan area use the collections as part of their coursework in 19th century British literature, Victorian studies, or detective fiction. Many of our instructional and outreach activities also involve older adults. For example, I’m currently teaching a four-session/eight-hour course within the University’s “LearningLife” program in the College of Continuing and Professional Studies. We’re having fun reading stories from what Sherlockians call “the Canon,” Doyle’s fifty-six short stories and four longer novellas featuring Holmes and his good friend, Dr. Watson.

We also host a triennial conference, cosponsored with our Friends of the Sherlock Holmes Collections and the Norwegian Explorers of Minnesota, a scion society of the Baker Street Irregulars. Our next conference is in August and will draw attendees from all over. We mount an exhibition in conjunction with every conference. The theme for this conference is “Dark Places, Wicked Companions, and Strange Experiences,” and I’m having fun displaying many seldom seen items. Out-of-town visitors, parents, and other folks from the general public will have a chance to enjoy the exhibit while they’re on campus.

In addition, we have a small permanent exhibit: a full-size replica (or simulacrum) of the sitting room at 221B Baker Street, a space in which Holmes and Watson often received clients and listened to their tales of woe. Sherlockian hobbyists enjoy recreating the sitting room based on a close reading of the adventures and given descriptions. Our room came as part of an estate received from a local Sherlockian. We also have a miniature version of 221 Baker Street that includes Mrs. Hudson’s landlady flat on the lower level as well as the upper flat belonging to Holmes and Watson.

Detail from the cover of Collier’s Magazine with Sherlock Holmes as the dying detective. The artist is American illustrator Frederic Dorr Steele.

The collections began with James C. Iraldi’s library of first edition Holmes stories. Now, since 1974, they have grown to include over 60,000 items and have become the largest gathering of Sherlock Holmes-related materials in the world. Was there always a goal to house so many objects? When did it begin to escalate into the thousands?

The Norwegian Explorers of Minnesota, our local Holmesian literary society, began in 1948. It was founded by five members of the University faculty who discovered, over lunch, that they shared an interest in Sherlock Holmes. One of those founders, E. W. McDiarmid, served as University Librarian. In his retirement, “Mac” (as known to his friends) volunteered in our unit, Special Collections and Rare Books. I think at some point in the early 1970s Mac whispered in the ear of my predecessor, Austin McLean: “Wouldn’t it be nice if the University had a collection of Holmes first editions?” I like to believe that McDiarmid and McLean were joyous co-conspirators in acquiring the Iraldi Collection.

But then the heavens opened, the Sherlockian world sat up and took notice, and we headed down a new path of collection development. In 1978, the University was given an amazing gift from Mary Kahler Hench, widow of Dr. Philip S. Hench, a Nobel laurate from the Mayo Clinic and active member of the Norwegian Explorers. Dr. and Mrs. Hench amassed an astonishing collection that included four copies of the very rare Beeton’s Christmas Annual from 1887 (the first time Holmes appeared), original artwork by significant Holmesian illustrators, and other rare items. The Hench Collection was at least ten times as large as Iraldi’s, and because of its variety subtly influenced a broader approach to collecting Holmes.

An image of American actor William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes.

While the materials include the Holmes stories, books on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and related periodicals, they also hold posters, scripts, scrapbooks, and other pop culture memorabilia. When did the shift take place from only Holmes stories to all types of related material? What is the selection process in terms of what is or is not relevant material?

This transformation occurred in the mid-1990s with the arrival of the John Bennett Shaw Collection. While the Hench Collection represented “high points” in Sherlockian collecting, Shaw’s approach was that of a vacuum cleaner: if it had anything to do with Holmes, Shaw collected it. Shaw’s motto, “Don’t throw it away, send it to me,” became our new sensibility. If it had anything to do with Holmes, we wanted it represented in the collections. Our Friends’ mission is “to become the world’s center for the study and appreciation of Holmes.” We embrace that mission. Thankfully, Libraries and University administrators also support our work.

We embraced playing “The Great Game,” a game that assumes Holmes and Watson are real people, that Conan Doyle was merely the literary agent, and that Watson is the author of most of the stories. The game’s goal, solemnly played with one’s tongue firmly in cheek, is to flesh out the biographies of Holmes, Watson, and other canonical characters. As I noted earlier, Holmes plays well in any medium. We want to capture relevant materials and have a formal collection development statement to guide our work. For this reason, we try to stay away from collecting three-dimensional objects and concentrate on works on paper or in an electronic format. But, when you’re offered a beautiful bust of Holmes created by the same artist who invented many of the Star Trek props, it’s hard to say no. We didn’t say no in this case.

An image of a manuscript page from The Hound of the Baskervilles in the hand of Arthur Conan Doyle.

Do you have a favorite artifact? A favorite Holmes story?

My favorite items from the Collections are probably the four original manuscript pages in Doyle’s hand from The Hound of the Baskervilles. Unlike his other manuscripts, this one ended up in the hands of an advertising agency, which used the original leaves on signs promoting Holmes’ new adventure. As a result, the manuscript will never be reassembled. But that’s not the key to why I like these handwritten pages. Instead, it relates to an experience I had showing one of the pages to a young visitor, her overwhelmed and tearful reaction of coming face-to-face with an original page from her all-time favorite Holmes story, the positive impact this visit had on her as a student, and the confirmation this experience had for me of my professional calling; I was doing what I was meant to do, in this place, at this time. It is a moment I will never forget.

As to a favorite story, it would have to be “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans.” For whatever reason, I have a small side interest in submarines. This tale features missing, secret submarine plans. It also features Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s older brother. I’m fascinated by Mycroft, a person described in the stories as possessing an intellect greater than his brother’s, to the point that “occasionally he is the British government… the most indispensable man in the country.”

Your website has a list of additional comprehensive Holmes collections along with links for where to find them. How important is the online community to this collection? How has it improved communication and fostered a dedicated following?

An image of a book jacket for a volume by Thomas Blakeney.

One of the things I enjoy about the Sherlockian library/archives community is that we’re not in competition with each other; we like to collaborate. Each collection has its own niche or emphasis. An online presence helps communicate what we’re about, our interests and activities. I regularly tweet what we’re doing with the collections. Liza Potts and her staff at Michigan State University are doing great things in terms of online community and communication with the website. I’m pleased to be one of the librarian advisors for this site. In addition, the Sub-Librarians Scion Society of the Baker Street Irregulars in the American Library Association is the oldest professionally affiliated scion society in the Sherlockian world. Other online communities, especially newer ones like Archive of Our Own (AO3), are critical in understanding and appreciating Holmes, Watson, and their world.

The Sherlock Holmes stories have been read, translated, and reimagined thousands of times all over the world. Why do you think these stories and this character have had such an impact on pop culture?

Doyle was a great story-teller. It was in his DNA, having grown up listening to his mother weave tales. These are good stories, well told. The character of Holmes is both of his age and timeless. He taps into the growing importance of scientific method, critical thinking, and observation at a time when public education was becoming crucial to modernity and the industrial age. So, Holmes speaks to and models activities essential to us in making our way through times of chaos and calm, while simultaneously giving us a peek at late Victorian, early Edwardian English society. Holmes is observant, talented, cranky, mysterious, and more. There’s a universal appeal here, tinted by something inexplicable. Vincent Starrett captures this in his poem, “221B,” when he writes: “Here dwell together still two men of note / Who never lived and so can never die: /How very near they seem, yet how remote / That age before the world went all awry.” I love those lines.

An image of Sherlock Holmes by American illustrator Arthur Keller.
An image of Sherlock Holmes by American illustrator Arthur Keller.

The materials in the collections are currently held in storage units in addition to a curated selection available on an online catalog. What was the process of digitization? Do you hope to digitize more items in the future?

Our digitization is strategic and research-/instruction-based, while also allowing for curatorial whims. I want there to be a certain Sherlockian logic in the digital assets and metadata we create based on need or interest. We have an internal strategic digitization program through our Digital Library Services unit. Each year I’m invited to submit a proposal. I also do my own work, a kind of boutique digitization, in addition to what might be done by DLS staff. We will, indeed, continue to digitize more items in the future. I have items in the queue, scanned and ready for metadata creation. We were waiting until DLS staff completed a transition with our UMedia platform. Now that this is done, more Sherlock material will soon appear.

Explore the Sherlock Holmes Collections at

This interview was conducted by Grace Lemon. She is a junior at Northwestern University and an editorial intern at Choice.