Preserving history in the L. Tom Perry Special Collections


The smell of a 100-year-old book filled the air as the cover lifted to show intricate drawings of glass windows and marble flooring of the Basilica di San Marco in Venice.

The L. Tom Perry Special Collections section of the Harold B. Lee Library is dedicated to preserving books, movies, photos and manuscripts similar to the Basilica di San Marco book.

Cindy Brightenburg, who works in Special Collections as a reference assistant, spoke about the purposes of Special Collections.

“The first (purpose) is for research, to have the resources available for research for the students,” Brightenburg said. “The second (purpose) is to preserve.”

Special Collections has been around since 1957, according to its website. It has been procuring materials through curators from rare book collectors, donations and LDS families and has reached more than a million items cataloged.

Students come in to Special Collections to get research from primary documents for assignments and for tours of the library through some select classes. Russ Taylor, Special Collections department chair, said despite its many benefits, Special Collections remains underutilized by the students and staff at BYU

“A lot of times I think students kind of feel like Special Collections is off-limits to them, and we really want to dispel that idea,” Taylor said. “We want them to come and have the experience of looking at these books (and) seeing what they have represented over the years.”

Special Collections has over a million items cataloged. The books, manuscripts, special motion pictures and photographs that make up the collection stretch over 600 years of history and range from topics like astronomy to world history and LDS mission journals. The LDS mission journals are some of the more in-demand materials in Special Collections because mission prep students are often required to look through the journals as part of an assignment, Taylor said.

“We have got great resources,” Taylor said. “We try to reach out to faculty members and tell them about what we have and what materials might be useful for assignments for their classes.”

Nathan Simpson, a freshman from McMinnville, Ore., stood looking at the Civil War exhibit while speaking about Special Collections. He was in Special Collections to look at some missionary journals for a mission prep class, but said he would probably return. The key to getting people down in Special Collections, he said, is to make it more accessible to them.

“You would have to figure a way to take it into their sphere to get them interested in it,” Simpson said. “Typically people don’t have access to stuff like this, and most people have to go out of their way to find anything like it.”

Special Collections has materials under seven different headings: Mormonism, Utah and the West, Literature, World History and Culture, Photographs, Arts and Communications, Music and BYU History. Students who wish to utilize the physical artifacts in Special Collections can go to Special Collections and check out a book. The book can then be read in separate room, set up specifically for those interested in Special Collections’ material.

Special Collections is working on digitizing their collection, starting first on their most in-demand items. Although this is a good resource, students should not discount the importance of the actual document, Taylor pointed out.

“I think that’s part of the experience of actually having people hold history in their hand.” Taylor said. “There is something to see the original document.”

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