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Cabinet of curiosities

Treasures and transitions at the University of Rochester's Rare Book Room


The note is no more than three inches high and six inches wide. The handwriting has faded, but the object's significance is palpable.

            My Dear Mrs. Post:

            Please shelter this sister from the house of bondage till five o'clock --- this afternoon --- she will then be sent on to the land of freedom.

            Yours Truly,

            Fred K.

            The message, written by Frederick Douglass to Amy Post in the 1850s, was carried by a fugitive slave on the Underground Railroad. It served as a pass that would get her safely to the next station, on her way to Canada.

            "It has creases in it where it was folded. You really have the impression it was clutched in someone's hand," says Melissa Mead, digital librarian.

            The note is one of many meaningful objects housed in the Rare Books and Special Collections Department of the University of Rochester's Rush Rhees Library. Any one of these objects may prove to be an invaluable asset in the work of a scholar or the research of a curious individual.

            "Our mission is to maintain and develop collections and services needed by researchers to support their work," says Richard Peek, director of rare books and special collections. "And by researchers I mean University of Rochester students, faculty, and alumni, as well as visitors from the Rochester community and the national and international scholarly community."

            There are over 100,000 books in the department's collection, including first editions of Henry David Thoreau's Walden, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and (autographed) Bram Stoker's Dracula, but that's just the beginning of the surprising array of cultural riches housed here.

            The department has always received objects along with written materials, explains Nancy M. Martin, archivist and Rochester Collections librarian. "The trend to accept these things has gained momentum in recent years because our sense of what has historic value has changed."

            But even in the realm of objects, there are some highly unusual items. Along with the papers of maverick novelist John Gardner --- a rich depository of manuscripts, book drafts, and letters --- you will find the leather motorcycle jacket he was wearing when he died while riding on a road in Pennsylvania's Endless Mountains. The department's staff didn't hesitate to accept it.

            "It speaks to the viewer, knowing what that jacket meant to the life and death of John Gardner," Martin says. "It adds to our understanding of the man and his works without question. It speaks to us in an extremely powerful way that traditional holdings may not."

            The more traditional holdings, Gardner's papers, provide an excellent example of the power of a literary archive by offering fascinating insights into his writing process. For instance, the papers reveal that while writing The Sunlight Dialogues, his brilliant 1973 novel set in Batavia, Gardner created his own index so he would not lose track of his many characters.

            The manuscript pages contain many crossed-out passages, changes of wording, and notes on plot that those studying Gardner's prose may find indispensable. The collection even includes some primitive drawings by the author, who grew up in Batavia.

            Looking at that record of a writer's thoughts from the typewriter age, you can't help thinking of how much has changed in the digital age. What will become of all the false starts that reveal an author's thought process when writers cover their tracks every time they sit down at the computer working their way through a new draft?

            "Presumably, writers will create a printout of a previous iteration of their work," says Martin. "Each individual writer has his or her own way of doing things; we can only hope that they will think historically. But doubtless, a lot of it will be lost."

            One casualty may be the anguished letters writers and poets send to each other, providing fodder for intellectual mills decades or centuries later. Will we be left with the collected e-mails of Philip Roth? Can often ephemeral digital media be collected in any meaningful way? E-mail seems a fragile vehicle if you are attempting to preserve an author's thoughts for posterity.

            The built-in obsolescence of both computer hardware and software presents unique challenges. So much so that, in February, Congress earmarked $100 million for the Library of Congress, specifically dedicated to the preservation of digital information that might otherwise be lost.

            "Unless you've printed it out on good paper with good ink, it may just disappear," says Mead. "In the future maybe they'll give them to us on a disc and we'll try to salvage them somehow."

            Mead says the department has begun to deal with this new world; one professor has already deposited his e-mails. And non-traditional media is really nothing new; along with books, journals, and manuscripts the library holds discs, videotapes, and a variety of other materials.

            Martin points out at least one advantage of e-mail over the traditional letter.

            "When someone wrote a letter to another person with a real pen and real ink on paper, chances are there was just one copy that went to one person," she says. "But with e-mail you have the copy with the sender as well as the recipient. You would hope that someone would have printed it out. You have to weigh the good and the bad but it definitely presents an incredible challenge to people who are trying to save the historical record. There's certain kinds of news that would most likely be conveyed by e-mail, particularly bad news."

If computers have changed the way writers write and librarians preserve texts, they have also changed the way rare book rooms do business. When Martin got into this work in the mid-1980s, she could not have imagined that she would one day be watching the computer screen for the last 15 minutes of an eBay auction to make sure no one bid higher for a desirable object. But that's where the historic papers and photographs often turn up.

            "If it's something I really want, I'm watching," Martin says. "What I often do is bid once with a high maximum bid. I might bid $100 and get it for $35 because the other guy only goes to $34. [On eBay, buyers can arrange to automatically top other bidders, in increments, up to a designated point.] If there's a photograph I want to buy, I bid significantly higher than I think it's going to go. Then I can relax."

            Of course, bidding wars can take place in real-world auctions too.

            "We participate in auctions whenever opportunities present themselves and whenever our resources allow us to do so," says Peek. "The Library is heavily dependent on gift funds to support a purchase at auction. And of course we then have to compete with the larger, deeper-pocketed institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Duke, etc., as well as private collectors. So it can be extremely rewarding when we're successful, and extremely frustrating when we're not. Because of the generosity of donors, we have been able to acquire some very important additions to our collections at auction. A recent purchase of a Frederick Douglass letter from 1865 is an excellent example."

            One of those private collectors Peek refers to recently paid $2.4 million for Jack Kerouac's On the Road manuscript. The prices may now be through the roof, but private collectors have always been in the competition.

            "It was the private individuals of the past --- like J.P. Morgan --- who were the highest bidders. That's how the Sibley Music Library obtained its excellent collection," says Mead. "Hiram Watson Sibley gave a lot of money. Barbara Duncan, the first Sibley Music Librarian, would go to Europe on buying trips. They would have the deepest pockets, and they would come home with all this fantastic stuff. As more and more people decide it's valuable it seems to become more commercialized."

            Auctions are by no means the only way of obtaining materials; authors and their families often make donations. If the papers are for sale, it is not unusual for authors themselves to negotiate with repositories. John Gardner had negotiated such an arrangement with the UR shortly before he died.

            Susan Thornton, who was to have married Gardner in a Rochester church in 1982 (he died four days before the wedding), provides a rare insight into the handling of an author's papers in her book, On Broken Glass: Loving and Losing John Gardner.

            Peter Dzwonkoski, then director of the Rare Book Department, traveled to Gardner's farmhouse in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, in the early 1980s to negotiate the arrangement. As Thornton explains, "Dzwonkoski was interested in the deal because of John's background in Western New York, and was surprised no other university had approached him."

            In Gardner's case, the money he would get from the University of Rochester would help him settle a half-million dollar debt with the Internal Revenue Service. After his sudden death, Thornton made sure his papers were not dispersed, and they were acquired by the UR.

            While special collections professionals develop an instinct for collectable items, the public may have its own notions of what is precious. The rare book department has turned down many family bibles; that kind of item is desirable only if it comes from a notable family. Other books and objects may be of great interest but are simply not appropriate for the UR collection. The library's staff does not hesitate to redirect would-be donors to other collections.

            But, because the staff members do not want to miss a potentially significant item, they will look at practically anything. Every year thousands of books are donated and each one is scrutinized.

            "We have to look at it carefully because it could be something very special," Martin says. "It could have belonged to someone who has significance for what we're doing."

            Most donated books are either not particularly noteworthy or duplicate holdings. These get sold at the library's annual book-sale fundraiser.

The range of items that fall under the label of "significant" may surprise you. The library's wish list is long and wide.

            "We would like to have a run of the Ladies Home Journal in paper," says Martin. "We never subscribed to that. No one recognized its scholarly potential. But the roles of women have evolved and changed so much that students reading the Ladies Home Journal from the 1940s or 1950s will find much grist for academic work."

            The rare book department would also be interested in runs of various comic books: Little Lulu, Archie and Veronica, Captain Marvel, comic versions of classic books --- the list goes on.

            The comic books would complement the department's already vast holdings in dime novels published from the late-1800s to 1920. These "penny dreadfuls," printed on cheap wood pulp, are seen as the precursor to the comic book.

            But what if the library was offered something more offbeat: say, a collection of materials gathered in the 1960s by an aging hippie --- psychedelic posters, buttons, underground comics, and newspapers?

            "We would be fantastically interested in that collection," says Martin without missing a beat.

            OK, the hippie era took place long enough ago to elicit nostalgia. How about something a bit more over the top: an early 1980s punk collection with fanzines, Sex Pistols records, and perhaps a safety pin or two that once adorned a Mohawk-topped face?

            "I know there are people collecting things from punk rockers in the '80s," Martin says. "If it's from New York or San Francisco, maybe it's not for us. But if it's the Rochester punk scene, maybe it is."

            What does it take to get the Rare Book room staff to say no? How about a collection of Playboy magazines from the 1950s and 1960s? Surely this would be something they'd turn down.

            "Part of you says yes and part of you says no," says Martin, "because it's of tremendous value to people studying the role of women. What was socially acceptable for your father to look at in his easy chair in the 1950s and has it changed today?"

            But would they take it?


It may seem a long way from the library's earliest printed book --- The Summa Theologicae by St. Thomas Aquinas (1472) --- to Playboy magazines, but the collection already contains no shortage of eclectic treasures: a lock of hair from Frederick Douglass, a lute that belonged to poet Carl Sandburg, a life mask of novelist Jerre Mangione, and the exquisite golden cigar case custom made for William Henry Seward --- the secretary of state under Abraham Lincoln best known for Seward's Folly (the purchase of a worthless piece of land now known as Alaska).

            There are beautiful 19th-century Spiritualist newspapers, examples of exquisite 19th-century handwriting, and magnificent maps and illustrations from horticultural collections.

            Among the collection's treasures is the opulent 1508 edition of the Works of Erasmus, once owned by Martin Brewer Anderson, the UR's first president. This early 16th-century book was housed in various libraries over the centuries, where it was undoubtedly treated with care. Still, it could not escape deterioration due to cigar and cigarette smoke and other climatic conditions.

            To fight aging and the further deterioration of its precious objects, the university employs Andrea Reithmayr, a book conservator with a degree in fine binding and conservation from Guildford College in Surrey, England. Her credo is simple.

            "In my work I want to do the least intrusive thing possible," says Reithmayr.

            In the case of Works of Erasmus, it was her job to take the book apart, figure out what the original binding was, and rebind it using acid-free, archival materials.

            First, all of the book's delicate pages had to be removed and bathed in distilled and filtered water containing a small percentage of calcium hydroxide, to wash and de-acidify them. Then the 60 or so signatures (groups of pages) that make up Works of Erasmus were re-sewn using a 16th-century technique.

            A new rope binding was created with state-of-the-art technique, circa 1500. The cover was then coated with pigskin, with a surface decorated with "blind tooling" indentations. The entire process took about 85 hours.

            The binding of a book may seem like a technical or artistic matter, but Martin views it through an anthropological filter.

            "You can follow a title through time, and what it was wearing tells you who it was marketed to and who was reading it."

            Works of Erasmus is only one of about 600 items per year in need of the services of Reithmayr and her staff of two. An 1852 original edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin gets a new spine, keeping as much of the original material as possible. And too many books to count need to be de-acidified.

            "After the Industrial Revolution, [the mid-19th century] wood pulp added acid to paper, making it prone to deterioration," says Reithmayr.

            Books aren't the only items that need conservation. A mid-19th-century poster for presidential candidate Simpson Hart, a broadside printed by the Free Soil committee, was intact but flaking at the edges. Reithmayr used conservation-grade wheat paste to back the poster with thin but strong Japanese paper. The repair is so beautifully executed, the average viewer might not even notice it.

            When they are not conserving books, Reithmayr's staff constructs boxes, slipcases, and other housings for a variety of materials. Enclosed in one of these boxes is a collection of papers and photographs gathered by Helen S. Williams, a department head at Eastman Kodak Co. from 1929 to 1949. The contents are devoted to the women who worked under her, and they reveal quite a lot about the life of working women in that era.

            Especially interesting are photographs documenting what happened when the women got married. Their desks were decorated to resemble wedding cakes on the occasion of good-bye parties. For women in the first half of the century, marriage usually meant leaving the company for good.

            Pictures documenting the changing of Rochester's architectural landmarks make up a substantial portion of the collection. One series of photographs, taken from 1919 to 1922, provides a sequential look at how the beautiful Victorian homes that once occupied Gibbs Street were replaced by the Eastman Theatre.

            The 1931 portfolio of architect Charles R. Kramer showcases his designs, including the former Baptist Temple on Franklin Street that now serves as Club Universe. Among the many photographs in the portfolio are interior and exterior views of some of the beautiful homes Kramer designed on Ambassador Drive and in other locations.

            The architectural drawings of Claude Bragdon, on deposit from the Rochester Landmark Society, include a pristine drawing of the front elevation of the magnificent (and long-gone) Rochester Station.

            In recent years, the Rare Book Room's staff has made a concerted effort to activate the collection by putting materials like these on display.

            The Rare Book Room accepts walk-in traffic, but would rather have advanced warning of visits so the staff can pull items of interest and have them ready. The staff especially welcomes community researchers.

            Although she has a pretty strong sense of the depth and breadth of the collection, Martin knows there are many more treasures to be discovered.

            "I'm sure there are, because as things progress, we learn to look at things in a different way," she says. "One of our students will perhaps uncover something in the future, not because we don't know we have it, but because someone looking at it with new eyes will add value to it."