Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2009


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A new setting for old treasures

A new setting for old treasures
The Linda Lear Center for Special Collections and Archives. Photo by A. Vincent Scarano

The Linda Lear Center for Special Collections and Archives opens the door on new opportunities for research

by Susan Kietzman ´82

As soon as you walk into the room, hearing the gentle whoosh of the glass door close behind you, you know you are in an extraordinary place. The silence envelops you, immediate and unexpected after the bustling activity on the first floor of the Charles E. Shain Library. You involuntarily inhale as you take in the attractive surroundings: children´s books in illuminated glass cases, colorful oil paintings, clean research tables and comfortable chairs. Welcome to the Linda Lear Center for Special Collections and Archives, the newly renovated facility dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the College´s historical records and artifacts.

Linda Lear ´62, an environmental historian, has written two biographies — Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (1997), which has been translated into eight foreign languages, and the award-winning biography Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature (2007). Lear says when she finished the Carson biography she had a vast collection of original materials that needed a home.

“The material I had fit in nicely with the environmental emphasis at Connecticut College, and I knew it would help round out the College´s collection,” Lear says. “When I told Brian (Rogers, College librarian emeritus) about it, he was so excited that he drove down to Maryland, put 48 boxes of material in his trunk and drove back to Connecticut.”

Today, the Lear/Carson collection is an extensive archive of documents and photographs; the Lear book collection includes books about Carson and the early environmental movement. It is one of the premier sources for information about the renowned writer and ecologist and her work. Lear is also planning to donate her collection on Beatrix Potter, adding to the Helen O. Gildersleeve Collection of children´s literature.

Her interest in primary sources began as an undergraduate. She first came into contact with original materials when she was all but living in a cubicle on the third floor of the old Palmer Library.

“The librarian seemed to always have a rare book in her hands,” Lear recalls. “When she showed them to me, I realized that the regular books in the stacks weren´t the limit of what I could use for research.”

Richard Lowitt, a former associate professor of American history, also broadened Lear´s concept of research.

“Dr. Lowitt believed undergraduate education should begin with original texts, not end with them in graduate school,” Lear says. “He gathered primary sources on the state´s regional, political, intellectual and environmental history, and built his seminars and his students´ research around them.”

An increasing interest in the study of original materials soon rendered their designated area in the library inadequate, according to Lear. She dreamed of making the cramped space not only large enough to accommodate an expanding collection but also faculty, students and researchers. In May 2008 — after much discussion, planning and careful consideration — she knew her dream would come true.

The project began the day after Commencement. Preparations included moving thousands of books and hundreds of boxes and other items that were previously housed in Special Collections. Everything was securely stored in the air-conditioned Haines Room on the second floor of the library, temporarily inaccessible to staff and researchers until it was moved into the new quarters at the end of August.

Those new quarters feature the latest technology, practical partner to the aesthetically pleasing design. It´s hard to look beyond the beautiful reading room, with its handcrafted oak tables and chairs, brass lamps, local artwork, and upholstered lounge chairs. But closer inspection reveals hidden outlets in those tables for laptops, so researchers can not only record their findings but also access the campus´s wireless network. Similarly dazzling is the Palmer Room, with its refinished walnut parquet floor and wood paneling. Yet hidden in the ceiling is a digital projector and viewing screen, as well as shades that can be lowered along the glass wall that separates the Palmer Room from the reading room to screen out light or provide privacy.

“It´s an incredible space,” says Laurie Deredita, who retired as director of Special Collections in December after more than 25 years. “It doubles the physical footprint of the old space, so the College´s Special Collections and Archives can be in one place, as they should be. And we can accommodate many more people. None of this would have been possible without Linda.”

Lear´s work is housed, along with everything else in Special Collections and Archives, in a temperature- and humidity-controlled area. Half of the storage area has regular fixed stacks, including folio shelves for large books. The other half features new compact shelving, movable shelves without aisles separating them. This shelving, which operates manually, has doubled the center´s storage capacity.

The new center also includes expanded offices, a collection processing area, and — as further precaution against possible damage to the valuable collections — a fire-prevention system and a separate air-conditioning unit on the library roof.
“Humidity is bad for books,” Deredita explains on a tour of the storage area. “This controlled environment keeps everything in pristine condition and slows the aging process.”

The renovation lasted throughout last summer and into early fall. By the end of September, the new furniture had arrived and the Lear Center was fully operational.

“The College community uses the Special Collections much more than previously because students are now taught in a different way,” Deredita says. “The trend in the last 20 years has been to do something with this resource — to make it available to the public and to the students. Some professors require their students to use the Special Collections and Archives material. Now they can bring their classes to the Lear Center.

It´s a wonderful place to work.”

Dear Prudence

The College´s Special Collections and Archives — more than 50,000 volumes, artifacts and boxed records — started in the 1920s with a gift of rare books from the George Palmer family. From there it grew into an eclectic compilation of fine private press books, children´s literature, art books, local history and environmental advocacy material, and one of the finest Eugene O´Neill collections in the world. It also includes papers by and about prominent American women like Alice Hamilton, Frances Perkins, Belle Moskiwitz and Prudence Crandall.

Crandall taught in Canterbury, Conn., at a school for girls she was asked to organize in 1831. Successful at first, she was soon immersed in controversy for her decision to admit Sarah Harris, the daughter of a prosperous African-American family, in 1832. White families withdrew their children from the school, prompting Crandall to announce that her school was going to be a teacher-training institute for African-Americans. She recruited young black women from as far away as Boston, New York City and Philadelphia; she was subsequently shunned by her community and church.

In 1833 the state passed the “Black Law,” which prohibited any Connecticut school to admit students from outside the state. Crandall ignored the legislation and was arrested and convicted. The case was dismissed, due to a technicality, in 1834, but the continued attacks on the school forced Crandall to close it before the end of the year. Crandall then married the Rev. Calvin Philleo, but in 1842 set out on her own to Troy Grove, Ill., where she opened the Philleo Academy. There she continued to be an outspoken champion for equality of education and the rights of women. By the end of her life she was living in poverty; Mark Twain was instrumental in convincing the Connecticut legislature to award her an annual pension of $400 in 1886.

“Prudence Crandall is an important part of our American Women´s Collection,” says Laurie Deredita, recently retired director of special collections. “Quite a few researchers have pored over her letters. Our students, too — especially those in American history or gender and women´s studies classes — come to see the papers.”

The Prudence Crandall collection, which comprises personal correspondence, newspaper articles, periodicals and photographs, was donated to the College in 1951 by Helen Earle Sellers, a former member of the state legislature, poet and children´s author. She was working on a biography of Crandall at the time of her death, at age 47.

“The Prudence Crandall collection, like our entire collection, is a link to the past,” Deredita says. “People don´t get hand-written letters anymore, so they are fascinated by them. Working with these collections is like a jolt of electricity for me. I think a lot of people feel this way when they hold these materials in their hands.”

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