Special Collections’ 300,000 Rare Books, Artifacts Set University, Library Apart


    By Nathaniel Casper

    Look carefully at the grass area just north of the library. It is crisscrossed by two sidewalks that form a giant “X,” and as anyone who has seen a cartoon treasure map knows, “X” marks the spot.

    Dig down some 40 feet, through the periodicals section of the library, and, lo-and-behold, you will find a veritable treasure chest of priceless literary and historical documents.

    The 10,000-square-foot vault of the library”s L. Tom Perry Special Collections is home to more than 300,000 rare books and thousands of boxes of manuscripts and personal histories.

    “It is certainly one of the greatest assets – culturally, historically and financially – that the church owns,” said David Whittaker, one of the special collections curators.

    Items range from ancient cuneiform tablets and papyrus scrolls, to first-edition copies of many of the classics of western literature and personal notes of modern apostles and prophets.

    Every library houses books, and most university libraries house the same kinds of books. The thing that sets one library apart from another is the special collections – the areas of emphasis in the collection. BYU”s emphases include Mormon history, materials from the earliest printing presses, classic movie memorabilia and one of the finest collections of Victorian literature in the world.

    The amount of information stored on the rolling shelves of this warehouse is amazing. Sadly, students are, for the most part, oblivious to the vast, awe-inspiring cavern of discovery that lies just beneath their feet.

    “It”s always been one of our greatest trials to get students to realize that we”re down here,” Whittaker said.

    University archivist Gordon Daines worries about the student”s perception that it is impossible to “get into the sanctified hallows of special collections”

    Many students may feel they are unwelcome, but nothing could be further from the truth. Certainly strict security measures are maintained to keep these materials safe. Students and even faculty and outside researchers are never given access to the shelving area. Patrons of special collections are asked to store their bags, backpacks and coats in lockers provided at the entrance to the special collections area. They are then let into a secure reading room, the large glassed-in room you can see on the first floor from the lobby. Library staff retrieves the materials and bring them to the waiting guests.

    A key-card is required to access the staff offices, and another locked door stands between the office space and the massive, tiled warehouse. Once inside, activities are monitored by closed circuit cameras. The room looks similar to the periodicals section of the library, with tall, white, rolling shelves.

    Logan Bradford is a student employee of the Music and Dance Library and is one of few students with access to the special collections.

    “Almost every time I go down there, I see some super duper old Book of Mormon or some fantastically large and ominous-looking book,” Bradford said.

    His description is dead-on. The space is quiet, unusually quiet, and each massive book seems to cry out to be held and to tell its story.

    Maggie Gallup, the rare books curator, said she regrets that her undergraduate English professors didn”t take advantage of the great resources of special collections

    “You learn so much more about the person who is writing,” Gallup said. “You can get a sense of who created these things by looking at them, and you really come to know the people better.”

    Sometimes the researchers get to know themselves better, too. Russ Taylor, the director of reference services, told of a time when he was preparing an exhibit of 18th century almanacs for a book collectors” conference. As he and a colleague leafed through the books, they stumbled upon a diary, written on the blank pages in the center of this 300-year-old record. Upon further examination, Taylor found the name of the author – the name of his fourth great-grandfather. It was, for Taylor, like a voice crying from the dust, thanking him for protecting his legacy.

    “An institution like ours becomes the memory for the segment of society that we are collecting materials from,” Taylor said. “We view ourselves as very important in preserving and passing on that memory to future generations.”

    Sometimes it”s an exciting, historical discovery, other times a chance to connect with an author and enhance a study, and sometimes it”s a spiritual experience as researchers stumble on genealogical information, or one of the library”s several original, hand-written copies of the revelations that now comprise the Doctrine and Covenants.

    What it isn”t is a bunch of stuffy old people viciously guarding their materials from public view.

    Special Collections are open to undergraduates. If there is a reason for students to see the materials, the staff is more than happy to oblige.

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