Liana Lupas stands out in New York, even by the standards of a city that defines itself with superlatives and seems to have world-class specialists in every conceivable discipline. She calls herself “the only librarian in the world who takes care of one book.”
Of course, that book is “the” Book, the Bible. And in two decades with the American Bible Society and the Museum of Biblical Art, Lupas has been responsible for a collection that includes more than 45,000 books of Scripture printed in more than 2,000 languages during six centuries.
“Each and every one is important to me, whether it was a pamphlet printed last month or a first edition printed before 1500. They are part of the same story and should be treated with respect,” Lupas said.
Lupas trained as a classicist in her native Romania, where she earned her doctorate in Greek and Latin. She worked at the University of Bucharest for 21 years before joining her husband in New York in 1984.
“I came as a refugee from the communists,” Lupas told Catholic News Service. Her husband spent many years in labor camps in Romania and the Soviet Union, and the couple was determined to live in freedom with their young daughter, she said.
With a small child at home, Lupas took a job as a library assistant, shelving books at the New York University law library and studied for her master’s in library science at Columbia University. A research project for her studies brought her to the American Bible Society, a venerable 193-year-old institution dedicated to making the Bible available to every person in a language and format each can understand and afford.
“I had seen the place as a tourist and knew they had an extraordinary collection,” Lupas said. “I was also conscious of my accent and figured that ABS was a Christian organization and they might be polite, even kind, to me.”
As it turned out, she had a great experience with the head of the American Bible Society archive and earned an “A” in the course she took. Two years after she completed her master’s degree, she became a cataloger at the society. Within a year, she was the curator.
The society’s Scripture collection is immense and some of the holdings are more rare than others. Lupas said most of its acquisitions are new translations, given by publishers to the organization that serves as a depository library. She is able to buy rare books for the collection with donations from a Friends of the Library organization.
She said that Bibles considered rare might include anything printed before 1700, the earliest translation in a language or geographic area, regardless of age, and Bibles belonging to historic figures, among other criteria.
In 2005, the Museum of Biblical Art opened in the Manhattan building that houses the American Bible Society. Its two galleries and learning center draw tourists, scholars and church-sponsored field trips, according to Lupas. In January, the society loaned 2,200 of its rare volumes to the museum for public exhibits over a 10-year period. Lupas was included in the loan and is now curator of the museum’s rare Bible collection.
About 4,400 people visited the inaugural exhibit, entitled “Pearl of Great Price,” for which Lupas chose 20 items she said “suggest the breadth and depth of the collection.” She included significant translations in English, Japanese and Bengali; Bibles with prominent publishers; those with unique marketing campaigns; and several with famous owners, such as Helen Keller, or intended readers, including Pony Express riders and World War II sailors and airmen.
The latter were New Testaments supplied by the American Bible Society, wrapped in waterproof covers and placed in survival kits on ships and planes. Frank H. Mann, the organization’s general secretary, said in 1943 that it was the first time in the group’s history that it was distributing Scripture he hoped no one would read.
Lupas said she does not have a personal collection of Bibles, because she has unlimited access to the books she calls her friends. But if she could own any one of the rare volumes she curates, Lupas said it would be the Complutensian Polyglot, a Spanish Bible printed in 1514 in Hebrew, Latin, Greek and Aramaic. “It’s an extraordinary book, the pinnacle of Catholic biblical scholarship,” Lupas said. She called it the first great polyglot Bible, or Bible printed in more than one language.
Raised Greek Orthodox, Lupas said she fulfilled a long-held dream to become a Catholic after she settled in New York. She belongs to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Parish in Ridgewood in the Queens borough of New York.
Lupas’ daughter, Maria Cristina, has followed somewhat in her mother’s footsteps. She majored in classics at Georgetown University, graduating with honors in 2000. Her faith journey led to Notre Dame de Vie, a French Carmelite secular institute, which has members in Washington. On Aug. 14 in France, Maria Cristina will profess final vows as a lay Carmelite. Her mother will be at her side.