Connecticut College Magazine · Summer 2005

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The Treasures of Special Collections

The Treasures of Special Collections
The works of Geoffrey Chaucer inspired William Morris to create this monumental edition in 1896. Photo by A. Vincent Scarano

Preserving rarities of literature, art and the biographical record for the enrichment of learning.

by Brian Rogers


Every college library has some irreplaceable items kept in a secure place for supervised use. The collection may have begun with the personal library of a benefactor, a few old letters, and perhaps some exotic memorabilia that the original owner didn’t know what to do with: a piece of ancient cuneiform, say, or a chip of wood from the Mayflower, or a lock of Sir Walter Scott’s hair. If encouraged, these random collections have a way of expanding to embrace not only rare books, letters, and a cabinet of curiosities, but much more: 18th-century almanacs and broadsides, 19th-century pamphlets, historic newspapers and postcards, fine printing, works of art, topical archives, and other pieces of the historical record that don’t lend themselves to storage in the open stacks. This is precisely what has happened at Connecticut College since its doors opened in 1915. A visit to the special collections in the Charles E. Shain Library’s Palmer Room brings one to a place where past and present meet in a microcosm of the larger library. And as these collections have grown, attaining critical mass in scope and usefulness, information technology has burst upon the scene with tools to sharpen their profile even more by allowing images, texts and archival finding aids to be viewed on laptops and workstations anywhere, night or day, on campus or off.

To be sure, looking at an illuminated 15th-century manuscript on a pixeled screen is not the same as holding it in your hands, noting its texture and the glint of its gold leaf. As Director of Special Collections and Archives Laurie Deredita puts it, “The Internet is great, but when doing historical research there is no substitute for the real thing.” And who isn’t fascinated by a rare book room with its handsome cabinetry, ranks of beautiful bindings, exhibits from the inner sanctum, all under the silent gaze of a bronze bust or two? Connecticut College has recognized the value of special collections ever since the magnificent personal libraries of George S. Palmer and his brother Elisha were installed in Palmer Library in the 1930s. In the decades since, the Friends of the Library and other contributors have continued to provide the main support for the collections, and endowed acquisitions funds have been designated for this purpose by their donors. The prevailing view of faculty, students, and alumni that special collections enrich undergraduate studies and lend distinction to the College contrasts with the claim once put forth by a nationally known college librarian that they should be restricted to the big research libraries.

In 2005 there are at least 38 distinct special collections at the College. Books are still the mainstay, but collections of papers are running a close second. The most historically resonant printed book, and the largest physically, is a facsimile of the Gutenberg Bible given by Mrs. Carl Wies of New London as part of her late husband’s collection on printing and typography. With these also came the most minuscule volumes, a set of German miniatures measuring five by six millimeters (about a quarter inch square) that reproduce four famous short texts (e.g., “Ich liebe Dich”) in seven languages. Each of the several thousand books in the Palmer Room and other repositories has a story behind it, sometimes revealed in a bookplate — that of Charles Dickens, say, or Eugene and Carlotta O’Neill — or by personal inscriptions such as those penned by Anne Morrow Lindbergh in the copies of her books that she gave to her friends Amyas and Evelyn Ames, late parents of former College president Oakes Ames. The magic of books can be felt here as nowhere else, calling to mind the quotation from Emily Dickinson chosen by the late Helen Haase Johnson ’66 to be used on the bookplate for the acquisitions fund she established with her husband: “There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away.”

Because papers and manuscripts require special care and handling, libraries sequester them with rare books and art works. “Non-book” collections came early to the College when history professor Chester Destler took it upon himself in the 1940s to solicit donations of papers relating to American women of public achievement, perhaps to provide inspiration to the young women of the College as well as to increase opportunities for library research. The effort paid off. In cooperation with College Librarian Hazel Johnson, Professor Destler brought in papers relating to Prudence Crandall, the pioneering 19th-century Connecticut educator who defied the authorities by admitting black girls to her Canterbury school; Belle Moskowitz, the prominent New York State Democrat who was Governor Al Smith’s indispensable political partner; Anna Hempstead Branch, active in the poetry guild at Christadora House, a New York City settlement house, and the last of her family to live in New London’s 17th-century Hempstead House; Alice Hamilton, the physician and toxicologist who fought to eliminate chemical hazards from the workplace (as Rachel Carson would do for the natural world two generations later) and had a residence hall named after her and her sister Edith, the classics scholar; and Frances Perkins, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor and the first woman to be named to a cabinet post. Collections of women’s papers acquired in more recent times include documents of the performing career of Roberta Bitgood ’28, the first woman elected to the presidency of the American Guild of Organists; the papers-in-progress of English professor, novelist and essayist Blanche McCrary Boyd; publisher’s proofs of novelist Luanne Rice ’77; and manuscripts of several of the historical novels of Cecelia Holland ’65.

With an eye on these precedents, but taking matters a step further, Shain Library has accepted responsibility for some extraordinary biographical archives that more fully document the lives and achievements of four individuals who have put their stamp on facets of American scientific, social and cultural history. These archives have come from Linda Lear ’62, biographer of Rachel Carson; Louis Sheaffer, biographer of Eugene O’Neill; and George W. Martin, biographer of Frances Perkins. The group also includes the personal papers of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet William Meredith, Henry B. Plant Professor Emeritus of English. Indexes for much of this material are yet to be created, but progress is being made, and the Sheaffer-O’Neill papers, which have been on the premises the longest, are regularly used by students in Theater 339d, Eugene O’Neill and His America, team-taught this year by Linda Herr and J Ranelli, and by many visitors.

These special collections, and most of the others that have found their way to this library standing at the highest point in the city of New London, intersect more often than not with the history and life of Connecticut College. They reflect the aspirations of early benefactors, faculty and librarians, and have enjoyed the support of, and been used by, generations of students and educators who have come to this campus. Indeed, this account would not be complete without noting some of the ways in which they illuminate the history of the College’s home town, some material predating the College by as much as two centuries. A good starting point would be the first book printed in Connecticut in 1710, shortly after the colony’s first printing press was set up in New London, at that time the residence of the governor. A famous dynasty of printers founded by Timothy Green labored in New London for nearly a hundred years, printing newspapers, proclamations of the governors, laws enacted by the colonial (later the state) assembly, books, sermons, almanacs and even currency. A Yale College examination broadside, typeset in Latin, lists the students in a Professor Naphtali Daggett’s class and the question they were to answer — a different one for each student: An plus argumenta a posteriori, quam a priori, Deum esse demonstrent? was assigned to one Nathan Hale. Dozens of 18th-century items printed by the Greens are here, along with 19th- and 20th-century books, maps, and prints that record the later evolution of the city. A large scrapbook documents the struggle in the 1960s, led by the late Claire Dale, to save Union Railroad Station, the city landmark designed by Henry Hobson Richardson. A postcard collection given by the late Muriel Harrison Castle ’39 provides colorful vignettes of New London in days gone by, many of them dating to the earliest years of Connecticut College and before. The College Archives in the John Meyer Room, a uniquely “special” collection, chronicle the story of this institution that has affected the course of the city’s history in many ways. When Dayton Associate Professor of Art History Abigail Van Slyck offered a senior art history seminar in 2004 called New London: A Cultural Landscape, it met regularly in the Palmer Room so that local history materials would be at hand during class sessions. “We took full advantage of Laurie Deredita’s hospitality,” says Van Slyck, “consulting maps, historic postcards, city directories, and other sources as we needed them. It was a teacher’s dream, to be able to put primary materials into students’ hands at exactly the moment they were ready and eager to grapple with them.”

Author’s Note: Brian Rogers was College Librarian from 1975 to 1993, when he succeeded Mary Kent as Special Collections Librarian. He retired in 1999.


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