Behind the walls of one building on campus, James Bond mingles with Nancy Drew. This is the same place where 16th-century Greek book editions and Italian plays of the Renaissance share shelf space with Star Trek movie paraphernalia and Chef Boy-Ar-Dee, and where equal reverence is shown for medieval manuscripts, 1970s ABC News transcripts, and a life mask made of Lincoln during his first campaign for president.
Of the more than four million books and other publications stored in The University of Iowa’s Main Library, some of the more fascinating items fall under the watch of Sid Huttner and a staff of librarians. Huttner is head of Special Collections, where, for more than 50 years, patrons have taken advantage of a wide range of rare and valuable resources on almost every imaginable topic—including agriculture, the culinary arts, the French Revolution, the history of printing, literature, politics, popular culture, railroads, religion, and vaudeville.
The world comes to this treasure trove on the third floor of the library. Special Collections draws close to 3,000 people a year, and Huttner and his coworkers serve visitors of all kinds. Many are University of Iowa students working on class assignments or projects.
One of these is Kelly Rohder, a senior English and journalism major from Plainfield, Ill., who has used the University archives in Special Collections to provide background information for stories she’s written for the University’s student newspaper, The Daily Iowan.
When A Streetcar Named Desire played at University Theatres, I realized that not many students knew that Tennessee Williams went to school here,” she says. “I went to Special Collections to find out about Williams’ experience on campus and about the people here who influenced him.”
Special Collections materials helped inform her story about the UI Museum of Art’s Mural by Jackson Pollack, and with her current project, a look at a highly popular, alcohol-free nightclub, The Silver Shadow. It caught the nation’s attention in the late 1930s, when it operated out of the Iowa Memorial Union, and it piqued Rohder’s curiosity in relation to current University efforts to provide alcohol-free events for UI students.
“The Special Collections staff has been an incredible help with these projects,” Rohder say. “And they get just as excited as I do when I discover something new.”
Other Special Collections visitors come from across the country and even across oceans to conduct research. Still others make the pilgrimage to visit memorabilia from the popular culture they grew up loving, or to satisfy a personal curiosity. An even larger and still more far-flung body of users comes by other means: Huttner and his staff respond to more than 3,500 e-mail, telephone, and regular mail queries each year.
Unique, rare, and valuable though much of it is, nothing in Special Collections is off limits to the public. Huttner says that one of the biggest misperceptions is that these collections are too precious to touch. Handlers must be gentle, but Huttner is insistent that patrons get to know what it’s like to touch what he brings out for them from behind the archive’s doors. That’s one of senior Kevin Mahler’s favorite things about Special Collections. Mahler, a religious studies major from Birmingham, Mich., has been working with Ray Mentzer, professor of religious studies, on a research project about the role of food in devotion.
“Some people, myself included, are very sentimental about books,” Mahler says. “It’s really cool that they preserve fragile old books, and that I’m able to touch them and look through them.”
That tactile thrill is often what hooks researchers who come to Special Collections. Denise Filios, an assistant professor of Spanish and Portuguese, has an interest in medieval manuscripts.
“There’s a thrill in touching something that’s 500 years old,” says Filios, who also brought her students of medieval literature to Special Collections for a close-up look at originals of the texts they were studying in class. “It’s like taking a field trip to medieval Europe.”
It is not usually necessary to don protective gloves and surgical masks, and although materials must stay in the Special Collections reading room, patrons are welcome to sit for hours, reading and absorbing the history that wafts from each page.
“One way to preserve objects is to lock them up in a vault and never touch them,” Huttner says. “But we’re a public institution. There’s a kind of irresponsibility in collecting things that can’t be used. Libraries are responsible for preserving not only artifacts but also core aspects of our cultural history. Paradoxically, books are best preserved when they’re used. Locked in a vault unread, they’re useless.”
Special Collections holds about 200,000 published books and 15,000 shelf feet of manuscript materials, including unpublished letters, reports, photographs, and other personal documents.
The collections are indeed special to Rick Altman, professor of cinema and comparative literature. He based much of his book, Silent Film Sound, on what he learned about early American cinema and entertainment from the Keith/Albee and Redpath Chautauqua collections.
“There are valuable items here that not even the Library of Congress or the Bibliothéque Nationale can match,” Altman says. “I couldn’t have found what I needed for my book anywhere else.”
Mahler and Mentzer have been able to pursue their study of food in devotion thanks to a UI Special Collections exclusive, the Chef Louis Szathmáry Collection of nearly 12,000 items relating to the art and science of cooking and eating.
“When I do an advanced search on InfoHawk [the UI Libraries online card catalog], I come up with 305 books, and they’re nearly all in Special Collections,” Mahler says. “The Szathmáry collection makes it possible to do this research here.”
In this era of online card catalogs, Judith Pascoe, associate professor of English, sees special value in bringing her students to visit Special Collections.
“Students can hop on the Internet, but they need to see real books,” says Pascoe, who developed a passion for the Charlotte M. Smith Collection of Miniature Books—a collection of about 4,000 books from the 17th century to the present, each book no more than three inches tall. “Holding books in your hands that people held 200 years ago or more gives you a different feeling and a different perspective. That experience tells you things about the culture of the time that you can’t know if you don’t have the books in front of you.”
As time passes and technologies change, the types of additions to Special Collections are changing as well. Besides books and papers, the library also is acquiring videotapes, CD-ROMs, computer disks, and digitally created information of all kinds.
“Manuscript materials are changing,” Huttner says. “Fewer and fewer people write letters, for example. Everyone sends and receives e-mail, but not everyone saves a copy of this correspondence.”
Huttner wants to find new ways to make the collections more accessible to the public. One way is to use advanced computer and digital technologies.
“We still have to preserve resources that have long-term scholarly value,” he says. “Recorded sound and moving images also present complex problems, as we try to keep up with the change of formats through the years—look how quickly we’ve gone from film to video and now to DVD. Nonetheless, it’s our job to continue to preserve the relevant parts of our history and culture for generations of researchers to come.”
By Amy Schoon