Why You Should Get to Know Olin Library’s Special Collections and Archives, Part I

In need of new material, or hoping to pursue an original research project? Look no further than behind the big glass door to the right of Olin lobby, in Wesleyan’s Special Collections and Archives. University Archivist and Head of Special Collections Suzy Taraba answers questions from Bridget Read ’12 and provides a rundown of this incredible resource for student writers.

What is Special Collections? What sets it apart from the rest of the library?
Special Collections & Archives holds the University’s rare books, archives, manuscripts, and local history collections. It functions as a microcosm of the larger library–the department offers all or most of the services offered by librarians in Olin, Science and Art, including class instruction and personal research sessions. Materials in SC&A don’t circulate outside of our department, but are used in our supervised reading room.

What goes on day to day in Special Collections behind the scenes of the reading room? Who are the people in Special Collections that Wesleyan students should know about and what do they do?
Beside the class visits, personal research sessions, and reading room hours with which students may be familiar, SC&A librarian/archivists also work with donors, process archival collections, catalog rare books, answer reference questions, give presentations for events, help to manage WesScholar, and participate actively in all aspects of the library and the University. Valerie Gillispie, Rebecca McCallum, and I are all liaisons to academic departments (as are all librarians). This involves working with faculty, keeping them informed about the library, selecting books and other materials for Olin in our areas, and working with students (individually and in groups) in those areas.

What is the process for students who would like to use Special Collections? What can a meeting/consultation with someone in Special Collections offer a research or creative project that an Olin session can’t? Do students have to know what they’re looking for before they schedule a meeting?
Students who want to use SC&A materials can just walk in during our regular open hours. Appointments to use our collections aren’t required, although it’s always a good idea to make an appointment to meet with a librarian/archivist if you’re not sure what you’re looking for or you’re having trouble finding what you want in the online catalog.  It’s also wise to make an appointment to talk with us if you’re beginning a large project or one that involves using the University archives extensively. We can help you navigate finding aids for archival collections here and elsewhere. We know our collections very well, and can often identify materials that will inform and/or inspire your projects–including those of you might not have thought about.

How do students go about looking at materials in Special Collections once they have an area of interest?
All materials are used in our reading room–no coats, no bags, no food or drink, pencils only. Most of our books are fully cataloged in the online catalog, and many of our archival collections are, too.  For some of our archival collections, there are full guides to the collections online–finding aids is the term used by archivists. The finding aids will give you background about the collection and list the materials in it, usually at the folder level.

What types of materials are particularly related to Wesleyan students/Wesleyan history?
We have more than 8,000 linear feet of University archives, which cover a wide range of Wesleyan history materials from central University administration records to tee-shirts, faculty papers, University publications, records of student organizations, fire buckets, tens of thousands of photographs, etc. If it pertains to Wes history, we probably have it.

Can you recommend any particular resources to student writers?
We have excellent holdings in English and American literature and history, with particular strengths in poetry. Creative writers might be especially interested in letters and diaries of Wesleyan students and faculty of the past, including collections of letters from the Civil War and World War II. And our fine collection of artists’ books is full of wonderful examples of creative interpretation of the book as an object and art medium.

What are some of the most unique materials or things you find interesting in the archive?
It’s really hard to pick favorites because we have so many interesting materials, and my whims vary with what I’m working on. Some highlights would include the papers of Henry Bacon (architect of the Lincoln Memorial – no finding aid online yet), our incredible poetry collections (see current exhibition), the Gutenberg Bible leaf, tiny little children’s books published in Middletown and bound in wallpaper, artists’ books, class albums, WWII letters to Fred Millett, queer periodicals, the list goes on and on.

Suzy Taraba is Head of Special Collections and University Archivist at Wesleyan University.

-By Bridget Read ’12

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