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Unpacking the Kripke Collection

I first met Madeline Kripke at the biennial meeting of the Dictionary Society of North America (DSNA) held at the University of Wisconsin – Madison in 1997. A friend of mine, Richard W. Bailey, introduced us, and while I had no idea, really, who Madeline Kripke was, I assumed she was important because Richard clearly thought so. In fact, she was a world-renowned collector of dictionaries and related items who was also one of DSNA’s twenty-five founding members. I learned all of this soon enough, and Madeline and I became friends over the years — I liked and admired her greatly and we talked and e-mailed about dictionaries and book history, slang and profanity, and other things. I quickly realized that while DSNA was full of lexicographers and academics, she was one of a few members for whom curating a collection was a parallel and indeed equally worthy scholarly enterprise. I had no idea then, can barely believe now, that the Lilly Library at Indiana University — my home base — would acquire Madeline’s collection when she died, as she did unfortunately, at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic on April 25, 2020.

Madeline’s life was one of the most interesting I’ve known, and I’ve learned still more about it since she died. You can read accounts of her life and her importance at the Dictionary Society of North America and at the New York Times , and there’s a wonderful account of her as a collector by Daniel Krieger at Narratively. To say she was remarkable grossly understates the facts.

Her carefully curated collection is astonishingly comprehensive, varied, and important. It includes roughly 20,000 books, manuscript archives, and ephemera. Around 6,000 of the books are accounted for in a partial catalog of 1,911 pages, 727,055 words. That’s right. We only know about less than a third of the books, yet that third is enough to impress those interested in dictionaries. What about the other two thirds? What things, expected and unexpected, will we find when unpacking the Kripke Collection?

Room full of hundreds of boxes
A view of a portion of the Kripke collection

Firms that specialize in packing and shipping rare items descended on Madeline’s apartment in Greenwich Village (Perry Street) and brought box upon box to the tenth floor of the Herman B. Wells Library on Indiana University’s Bloomington campus in December 2021. Some boxes contain one item, more contain three to five, and still more contain dozens. That’s part of the variety I just mentioned: items in her collection range from the colossal to the minute, from editions of large American general-purpose dictionaries (Webster’s, Funk & Wagnalls, American Heritage, etc.) to glossaries of local speech sold at corner stores, restaurants, and roadsides. Ephemeral items like advertising flyers and marketing kits, school workbooks, laminated newspaper articles — all of these fill the cracks among the bigger books.

Madeline collected dictionaries of all sorts, but she also favored slang, profanity, and obscenity among those dictionaries and other works, both nonfiction and fiction that illustrate underworld and niche vocabularies and the cultures that speak in the words found there. She had an impressive collection of Tijuana Bibles, volumes of which sit alongside all the editions of Merriam-Webster unabridged dictionaries. Box by box, the authoritative nestle alongside the scandalous guides to language. Mostly Anglophone, her collection also includes dictionaries, especially slang and jargon dictionaries, in languages other than English. 

Where does one start? We have begun unpacking the Kripke Collection for months now and wonders abound. I’m lucky. I’m a lexicographer and dictionary scholar on site, with supervised access to the unprocessed collection. Eventually, all the books will be in the library catalogue and ready to consult, but they aren’t publicly available yet, so how to introduce Madeline’s collection to those around the world who might find it interesting? I thought I’d commit myself to unpacking the collection for everyone, one blog post at a time, thus this blog series, “Unpacking the Kripke Collection.” 

Close up view of several boxes
Each box is labeled with just a bit of information, “Documents” or “18 books”

I’m not searching among the boxes for books that cost the most or represent the grandest lexicographical traditions. I’m not against uncovering a copy of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755) or a pristine copy of the first printing of Webster’s Third (1961). Generally, then, I’m avoiding boxes with one to three items, because those will be the “big” dictionaries, in every sense. Instead, I’m searching through the boxes with lots of items in order to identify what’s unusual and perhaps even unique about Madeline’s collection. 

To put it another way, I’ve been rooting around in boxes now for works at semi-random. I won’t always write about the first thing I find, but I won’t search for books we already assume are special. I’m looking for the works that even the scholars and book dealers and librarians won’t anticipate. What excites me most is when I find a work — book, pamphlet, insert, advertising circular — of which the Lilly Library now may be the only owner, something especially true of the more ephemeral items Madeline collected. 

I plan to post each week. Each post will focus on one or two or a few related items in the collection. One week’s post will describe Madeline’s special copy of a classic slang dictionary of the seventeenth century; another will jive about ephemeral works of bop and beat slang published to market television shows and television celebrities; another will riffle through a small trove of manuscripts related to the slang lexicographer Eric Partridge; yet another will tell the story of a raised-letter dictionary of musical terms for blind people; then a post about dictionary work books for schoolchildren — you get the idea. And, I realize this will be the most attractive feature of each post, there will be photos of the works and their distinctive features. 

I’ll keep going as long as I can, perhaps until the collection is processed and anyone can visit the Lilly to view or consult whatever items interest them. That will take a few years, so the time to start is now. Please, join me in unpacking the Kripke collection. As with your favorite breakfast cereal, there’s a prize in every box. 


  • David Cohn says:

    Wass acquainted with Madeline from selling at the flea market and at book shows but I don’t think I ever fully appreciated what must be a singular achievement in collecting and her enormous dedication to the printed word. Love that she appreciated dirty words and will always remember her business card which read simply, “Madeline Kripke……Lexicunt”.
    Looking forward to what you unearth.

  • Neil Crawford says:

    Back in the mists of time I was in email contact with Madeline regarding sexual slang; sad to hear of her untimely demise; glad to see that her collection will eventually be available to interested scholars. ~Neil Crawford, Somerset, UK

  • Krista Ramsey says:

    This story fascinates me, so I’ll be following your series. Thank you!

  • Cathy Fraley says:

    “Fascinating” doesn’t begin to describe this endeavor. I will be following your posts. Happy unpacking!

  • John Morse says:

    Michael, please do keep us posted about the treasures you find. And thank you for taking on this task and for starting this blog. It is much appreciated.

  • Ivan Kreilkamp says:

    I am looking forward to this series, can’t wait to see what you find!

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