Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story? Preserving the Past and Building the Future through Special Collections

Madeline Keyser holds a BA in both English and German from Texas A&M where she was also the Cataloger at the Cushing Memorial Library and Archives for two years. She is currently working on a dual Masters in Library Science, with a specialization in rare books and manuscripts, and Comparative Literature at Indiana University. She is just wrapping up a summer internship at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C.

Me @ White House

Special collections librarians and archivists acquire and care for rare books, manuscripts, and other rare, culturally significant items (which can include everything from ancient clay tablets to Lego sets!). These collections need to be carefully organized, cataloged, stored, and made available to researchers. In doing so, librarians and archivists are increasingly aware that there are silences in the archives and library: voices that have been left out and undocumented, sometimes permanently. We continually ask ourselves why certain perspectives have been neglected, and what we can do to fill these gaps in the future. It’s obvious that some items will be left out of special collections – even we admit that we can’t keep everything. However, part of our job is to ensure that artifacts have tended to be highly collected in the past are not the only things we are continuing to collect; we strive to ensure that as many different perspectives are preserved as possible.

Why Preserve Rare Materials?

Let’s back up a bit. Why do we bother preserving any rare materials in the first place? What is the value in using an original rather than a digitized copy or modern editions? One reason is the existence of what Walter Benjamin would call the “aura” of an object. In his 1935 essay, Benjamin argues that mechanical reproductions of artworks cannot reproduce the original’s “presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence” (Benjamin 3). In other words, humans seem to intrinsically connect with the physical object because it conveys an authenticity that a surrogate cannot. The object with which a person feels an emotional connection has come into contact with a time or a place that is meaningful to the person, which is often just as important as the objective knowledge or new information one might gain through studying the object.

The same illustration from a digital surrogate of a copy of the Sarum Missale versus an original. The image on the left is made from a digitized microfilm, and while digitization technology has advanced significantly since this was made, it is an exaggerated example of the type of the difference between using a copy and an original (EEBO STC (2nd ed.) 16188; Cushing Library/Laughlin Collection BX2015 .A2 1510).

Version 2

This particular copy of the Missale was censored during the English Reformation; the copy that was digitized was not.

Primary sources are “materials in a variety of formats that serve as original evidence documenting a time period, an event, a work, people, or ideas” (ACRL RBMS-SAA Joint Task Force 2), and are the type of materials that are collected by rare books libraries and archives. Working with primary sources often gives us a peek into microhistories rather than the macrohistories that we are so often taught in the classroom. We realize that microhistories (the histories and stories of average, everyday people and goings-on) are the building blocks of macrohistories (historical change on a large scale). In many cases, the materials housed in special collections do not come from notable people, but from average, everyday people. Sometimes we know their names and life stories, but sometimes we only realize that they existed because they left an entirely ordinary object, such as a printed copy of a proclamation made by Queen Elizabeth, or a 15th century Book of Hours, behind.

Studying What Can Be Studied

The two examples I give above are examples of Western European materials since that’s the type of material that I have handled most often and what I know best. However, thinking about book history from a Western perspective is extremely limited. Students are often incorrectly taught that Johannes Gutenberg invented printing in the mid-fifteenth century, which is not the case; he initiated printing with moveable type in Western Europe. Moveable type was a technology that had already been in use in Asian countries for centuries. The oldest surviving printed item is the Hyakumanto dharani, four Buddhist charms printed with woodblocks or metal plates in 8th century Japan. The Empress Shotoku commissioned one million copies to be printed, and many still survive today (Hickman 89). Moveable type was invented in China sometime between 1041-9 (Hickman 90). A book printed with moveable type, JunMun Gyo, was printed in Korea between 1438-9, pre-dating Gutenberg’s work by about 15 years (Samuelson 10). Paper was invented in 3rd century China but wasn’t used in Europe until the late 14th century. Writing ink was developed in around 2500 BC in both Egypt and China (Parrott-Sheffer). With just these few examples, then, it is easy to see that thinking about book history from a Western perspective distorts the full story.

Dharani Scroll

One of the original dharani scrolls and the pagoda in which it was housed (Lilly Library, Indiana University, BL440 .S6 Vault)

Part of the reason for this distortion is that we can only study what survives and what can be found via cataloging record and archival finding aids. Arguably, the entire field of bibliography was founded on Shakespeare studies. A massive amount of time and effort has been focused on studying early printed copies of Shakespeare’s works, simply because of the sheer amount of material that has survived. 235 known copies of the First Folio have survived, not to mention early printed copies of individual plays. Printed in 1623, the Shakespeare first folio (often known colloquially as THE First Folio) is the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s works. Many of his plays had either never been printed before or have not survived in any print edition, so without this book, we would not have plays like Macbeth, The Tempest, Julius Caesar, and As You Like It, among others. This is one of the most expensive books in the world: the record auction price for the First Folio (set at Christie’s, New York, in 2001) is $6.16 million dollars (Cascone). That said, 235 copies of a book is an astonishing number – in terms of surviving copies, this book isn’t “rare” at all! (In fact, the third edition of the Folio, printed in 1663, is much more rare in terms of surviving copies than the first, since many copies were destroyed in the 1666 Great Fire of London). The staggering price of the First Folio is based on the fact that it is perceived as one of the major cornerstones of modern Western literature and culture.

But what if one wanted to study non-Western cultures and material? In Western institutions, it can be more difficult to catalog works printed in non-Roman alphabets, partially due to the failure to invest in the necessary resources, and also because many Western European and American library catalogers don’t know these languages. This means that many non-Western materials remain hidden from users because they are not made digitally available. Additionally, a great deal of non-Western material has been lost. It would be interesting to study, for example, Aztec manuscripts, but there are no original manuscripts that do not show European influence. Pre-Conquest manuscripts were destroyed by Spanish conquistadors and colonizers for their pagan content, and even Aztec kings would destroy books that portrayed things they wanted to be forgotten (“Colonial and Aztec Codex Facsimiles”). How can we study something that doesn’t exist physically, or that can’t be found because it is uncataloged?

Studying by Doing

In addition to studying the book as a physical object, another important kind of learning through material culture takes place in special collections libraries. Texas A&M University hosts an annual Book History Workshop, during which students learn about various aspects of historical book making through morning lectures, which are supplemented with material examples from A&M’s special collections. In afternoon lab sessions, students work to create a facsimile copy of Thomas Paine’s 1791 edition of Thoughts on the Peace (Cushing Library/Rare E211 .P156 1791) . Students set, correct, and print type on a replica common press, make and print woodcuts and engravings, cast type, and make and marble paper, among other activities. Throughout the course of this workshop, students begin to understand the physical labor that went into historical bookmaking in the West, which offers clarity into how Western books are constructed.

One of the printing presses at Texas A&M University and the final product of the 2019 Book History Workshop (photo credits: Todd Samuelson and Kevin O’Sullivan).


Working the press.

The dirty, smelly, and often tedious and repetitive work that went into this bookmaking process becomes very readily apparent, and students who have participated in this kind of work continue to develop this awareness every time they handle an early printed book. The people who worked to create these objects were, socio-economically speaking, the complete opposite of the people who built great collections and point to the types of people who are often not included in the historical record.

How Collections Are Built

As Molly Schwartzburg, a curator at the Albert & Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia pointed out in her recent talk “Collecting to Strength, Subverting Tradition: Curatorship in the 2010s” at Smithsonian Libraries, curators go into collection development (the acquisition of materials for collections), with the expectation that their acquisitions will be permanent parts of the collections. Many libraries do not deaccession (officially remove items from the library’s collections in order to sell) material, so the decisions librarians make about accepting or purchasing material are immensely important in terms of the directions collections might take. The organization and cataloging of collections can either welcome or alienate researchers, and the connections students form with materials that we pull for classes will determine whether they ever come back to special collections or not, especially if they feel that these places are spaces that exclude them.

It is the physical and emotional connections we make with objects that people have left behind that connect us with the past and allow us to see different parts of ourselves reflected throughout history. Not only is it imperative that we preserve these materials and share them with as many people as possible, it is imperative that we seek to include as many different voices and perspectives as possible. In this way, we can continually work to develop a more complete understanding of the past and what has brought us to our present cultural and historical moment.

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Works Cited

ACRL RBMS-SAA Joint Task Force on the Development of Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy. Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy. 2018. http://www.ala.org/acrl/sites/ala.org.acrl/files/content/standards/Primary%20Source%20Literacy2018.pdf

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn, Schocken Books, 1969, pp. 1-26.

Cascone, Sarah. “Christie’s to Sell Previously Unknown Copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio.” Artnet, 18 March, 2016, https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/shakespeare-first-folio-sale-christies-452987 . Accessed 20 June 2019.

Early English Books Online (EEBO). [Missale ad co[n]suetudine[m] insignis ecclesie Sarum…]. Inalma Parisorum academia : [opera Wolffga[n]gi hopylij, impe[n]sis vero Francisci byrchma[n] elematissime, impressum [in London]. [1510] [1511 7. Februarij]. STC (2nd ed.) 16188.

Parrott-Sheffer, Chelsey. “Ink: Writing Medium.” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/ink-writing-medium. Accessed 11 July 2019.
Hickman, Brian. “A Note on the Hyakumanto Dharani.” Monumenta Nipponica, vol. 30, no. 1 1975, pp. 87-93.

Samuelson, Todd. A Legacy of Letters: Teaching Book History at Texas A&M. Texas A&M University Libraries, 2012.

Schwartzburg, Molly. “Collecting to Strength, Subverting Tradition: Curatorship in the 2010s.” Magnificent Obsessions: Why We Collect,” 19 July 2019, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C. Speaker Series.

University of Arizona Libraries Special Collections. “Colonial and Aztec Codex Facsimiles.” Mesoamerican Codices: A Facsimile Exhibit. http://www.library.arizona.edu/exhibits/mexcodex/aztec.htm. Accessed 18 June 2019.

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