The late Al Keim, professor emeritus of history at EMU, loved his family, history, the Mennonite Church and old farm machinery. Photo by Howard Zehr

Rare Books Landing New Home

Melody Keim never truly believed her father when the late Eastern Mennonite University history professor humbly claimed his extensive book collection was a way to build toward retirement.

Albert N. Keim’s collection of hundreds of books proved to be much more than a future payoff. The passion was a way of sharing time with his daughter while antiquing, a testament to his love of Anabaptist history and metaphor of his conversion from Amish to Mennonite.

“I think for him, history and books, particularly, had a special meaning,” said Melody Keim, 50. “For him to not have graduated from high school, but to go on and get his Ph.D. … a book was real tangible in explaining his journey.”

On Friday, Apr. 8, 140 rare books in the Keim collection will be auctioned by the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society in Lancaster, Pa. Included in the auction are two 18th century “Martyrs’ Mirror” editions printed in Ephrata, Pa.; a 1785 Germantown, Pa., Christian songbook edition; and a 1765 Nuremberg Bible.

“I just felt like this is an appropriate way to pass on the books,” Melody Keim said. “I felt like Dad would be really happy with that because his roots are in history and this historical society takes a portion of the sales.”

Bound By Books

“Al” Keim died in 2008 at the age of 72 of complications following a liver transplant. He served as a professor at EMU for 35 years and was the academic dean from 1977 to 1984.

Keim retired in 2000, but was a mainstay on campus and in the community and admired for his storytelling.

“He was just a very brilliant man, but he made [no fuss] about himself,” said Lois Bowman, the librarian at the school’s Menno Simons Historical Library. “I never saw him strut or show off. He was extraordinary and

Despite his Amish upbringing, which placed no emphasis on higher education, Keim’s love for history and reading led to a bachelor’s degree from Eastern Mennonite College (now EMU), a master’s from the University of Virginia and his doctorate from Ohio State University.

Keim was drafted into the military in the 1950s, but served as a conscientious objector in Germany with the Mennonite Central Committee PAX program. He made many connections and friends in Europe who later helped him add German and Dutch texts to his collection.

Keim also collected some of the first German-language texts printed in America, including “Martyrs’ Mirror” editions by Christopher Saur in the mid-1700s.

“Martyrs’ Mirror” is a Dutch collection of pre-1660 martyr stories, which still serves as the most widely read devotional text for the Amish and Mennonites.

“He pulled them out, and a lot of them were in German, and he’d read them and translate,” said Melody Keim, who first became interested in collecting after spotting a Saur edition when she was 12. “He would be telling me all the other things about the books and how they were used.” The 1785 edition of the “Ausbund,” the oldest Christian songbook still being printed, is an early American version. The 16th century German hymnal is still used today in Amish communities.

Likely To Sell For Hundreds

In Keim’s collection “there’s a good variety of both Mennonite and Amish doctrinal books, songbooks and devotional literature,” said Caroline Wenger, an archivist at the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society with 35 years of experience.

Some of Keim’s books have unique inscriptions and notes with family histories. The LMHS believes certain books could sell for hundreds of dollars and maybe more than $1,000.

Keim’s widow, Kathy Fisher, hopes that others will share her late husband’s affinity for the Anabaptist tradition found in many of the books.

“It just combined his love for his daughter Melody, his love for bookstores and his love for history,” Fisher said. “He loved the whole Anabaptist story and he loved the Mennonite Church.”

Melody Keim said there are other collections that the family is not ready to part with and that certain books will be passed on to her two sons, Jeremy and Jonathan Keim-Shenk.

For more information on the auction, contact LMHS at (717) 393-9745, or visit


Tim Chapman is religion editor at the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record. Story used by permission.