Special Collections & Archives: A Glimpse of the Past
Where on campus can you catch a glimpse of the first editions of Winnie the Pooh or lay eyes on a Shakespeare folio from the 17th century? The Special Collections and Archives, housed in Olin Library.
Rare books were donated to Special Collections beginning in the 1830s, although no room would be designated to house the books for another century. The rare books were temporarily housed at the first University library, Rich Hall, which is now where the 92nd Theater stands.
When Olin Library opened in 1928, the Gribbel Treasure Room was home to the University’s rare books. The “treasure room,” a name commonly used for rare book rooms during the early twentieth century, now houses the University Librarian’s Office. At the time, there was also a separate Wesleyan room, which is the beginning of the Archives, and a room for the collection of Henry Bacon’s papers, who designed the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., as well as many buildings around campus.
There was also a Davison Art Room, where there were special art exhibits and rare art books. During the 1950s, because of a lack of space, all of these smaller collections merged to become the Special Collections. The Special Collections did not become associated with the University Archives until the early 1970s.
George Davison, class of 1892, was one of the major donors to the Special Collections, and he gave the funds to create the Davison Rare Book Room, which opened in 1952. Davison also helped plan the room’s design.
He donated parts of his rare book collection at this time and left a majority of his collection to the University after his death in 1953.
The collection is extremely varied, with strengths in English literature and history, poetry, early twentieth century German literature, the Arthurian legend Methodistica, and artists’ books. The Special Collections & Archives department buys new books for the collection each year.
“I’ve been looking to build the rare books collections in two main directions,” said Suzy Taraba, University Archivist and Head of Special Collections. “First, to support the curriculum, because this collection should be used, and it is used. The other area which I’ve worked to build is the collection of modern artist books.”
Many of the artist books are extremely rare, with the artists usually only creating one copy of each. Other books in the collection are considered rare because of the books’ previous owners. The Special Collections’ copy of Shakespeare’s Fourth Folio from 1685 is distinctive for its heavy annotations from eighteenth century English playwright Charles Johnson.
The Nathan Comfort Starr Collection of Arthuriana is another unique part of the Special Collections. This is a collection of material related to the legends of King Arthur’s search for the Holy Grail that was donated to the University by Nathan Comfort Starr when he died in 1981. Starr was an Arthurian scholar who donated around 900 volumes of criticism, scholarly works, and modern adaptations of Arthurian legend to the University. These items range in date from 1572 up to the 1970s.
“There have been classes on campus about Arthurian legend and they took these materials out to use in the class,” said Samantha Klein, who is working on cataloging the Collection of Arthuriana as part of a temporary project. “It’s gratifying to know that people are looking at these books and professors are going to be using them.”
Besides buying books and receiving donations, the department reviews books in storage before they circulate in the stacks. If any of the books fit certain criteria, they are transferred to the Special Collections.
“Decisions to transfer books to the Special Collections are based on the following factors: scarcity, connection to the curriculum, monetary value, condition and a more amorphous category of whether the item is interesting,” Taraba said.
Everything in the Special Collections and Archives is kept under tight security. There are alarms and cameras, and all materials must be read in the supervised climate-controlled reading rooms. When there are extra funds available, they send some materials to be professionally preserved. Since this is so costly, however, they usually box books that are not in pristine condition in order to prevent further deterioration.
Many students use the collection each year for class assignments. Taraba also leads sessions with 35-50 classes each year, where she works with the professors to show items relating to their curriculum. She also often buys books with specific classes in mind.
English, history, and studio art classes are the heaviest users of the Special Collections, according to Taraba, but almost every department has had at least one class session. Even Computer Science classes have had sessions to see the collection of early cryptology books.
Middletown residents also visit the Special Collections and Archives in search of information about local history, while visiting researchers often come to see the Henry Bacon or John Cage papers.
The Archives includes items that date back to the 1830s, although it was not formally created until the 1970s. University archivists continue to collect items from offices and people that they deem significant to University history.
The Archives are used by students that need to do research for projects, and also student groups looking for information on their history. Faculty members may also use the archives when developing their curriculum.
The Archives recently received the papers of Wilbur Atwater, a former Professor at the University who invented the calorimeter. These important papers include scientific documents, love letters, and notebooks belonging to Atwater.
There are also students working on Archive projects, with three seniors who are majoring in history organizing thousands of photos donated by The Middletown Press. These photos range from Middletown history to Associated Press photographs of celebrities and national events.
When more funds become available, the Special Collections and Archives department hopes to be able to put archive material and rare books online.
“In the future we’d like to get more of our items digitized, since that’s the direction that many libraries are going,” said Linda Hurteau, Special Collections and Archives.
With the constant desire to digitize everything, the future of rare books may look quite different.
“The book has an emotional and intellectual value that I don’t see going away,” Taraba said. “While sometimes digitized versions of books are substitutes for the original, often people want to see the original book or other books like it. These digitized versions actually pull people into special collections.”