Like many special collections at universities across the country, the Special Collections Research Center at Swem Library is dedicated to supporting the research mission of the College, but just as important is its role in enhancing the College’s commitment to excellence in undergraduate teaching. This year, in addition to my other tasks, I have had a few chances to assist the staff of the Special Collections Research Center with a number of outreach events aimed at College undergraduates.
Before starting work at the Special Collections Research Center, I assumed archives were repositories of serious things relating to very serious matters. There are most certainly serious documents which serve very important purposes, but there are just so many more things housed in the archives here. Many of these things have come to my attention through work on exhibits or in talking to members of the staff. There is an entire collection of various editions of The Night Before Christmas. There is the Chapin-Horowitz Collection which contains over 10,000 books in a number of different languages about dogs. Some of these books come from the sixteenth century. There are even models of the choir used to determine standing arrangements for concerts and sports memorabilia from William and Mary athletic events. All these collections are a far cry from my previous, narrow view of what might be found in the archives.
Another semester is coming to an end at Swem Library’s Special Collections and student employees are getting ready for the hustle of the last few weeks of classes. It is my last semester working at Special Collections, and the year I have spent as a graduate apprentice here has gone by in the blink of an eye. This semester has looked very different from my first semester here. Previously, I was examining artifacts and documents before cataloging them into Special Collections’ Education Collection. I was also helping Special Collections staff install exhibits. While I have continued to work on cataloging and helping staff, I have also been tasked to make a few exhibits of my own.
I have been researching, writing, and planning an exhibit on the Civil War Centennial to be displayed outside the Special Collections Research Center in the Nancy Marshall Gallery. Given that the years 1961 through 1965 were of great historical importance in their own right, one can forget that they also represented the one-hundredth anniversary of the greatest conflict of American history. The relationship between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement may be obvious—indeed, Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson alike invoked the ancient promise of emancipation in their efforts to promote civil rights in the 1960s. What I gained from researching the Civil War Centennial is an understanding of the ways in which historical memory of the Civil War was used as much to fight ideological battles and even continue racial discrimination as it was to make good on the American promise of equality.
It might be an exaggeration to say that it’s been a dream of mine to work at a library, but I was pretty darn excited when I found out that I would be serving my graduate assistantship in Swem Library’s Special Collections Research Center. I worked one summer in the archives at my city’s local historical society, but Swem’s Special Collections is so far beyond my city’s archives that it’s like moving from a puddle into the Pacific. My previous experience wading through the donated contents of people’s attics at my local museum left me feeling inadequate when faced with the vast holdings of rare and unique materials in Special Collections.
While there are many things in an archive like Swem Library’s Special Collections that the archivists and staff know we know, there are also the known unknowns. There are some things we may never know, and a person can accept that, but sometimes there is something that you think must be known by someone and it is just a matter of finding the person who knows it – or a person who is persistent enough to do the research to find the answer. One of the things I will sometimes do as an archivist is take under- or unidentified diaries, correspondence, scrapbooks, or other material to students and other researchers to turn them loose on finding further information. In the best case scenario, the researcher’s work will pay off in identifying a previously unidentified diarist or correspondent.
One of the cornerstones of the Swem Library’s Special Collections Research Center is its rare book collection. Contained in this collection of some 50,000 volumes are books representative of human thought and culture, both popular and learned, that range in subject matter from science and medicine to history, literature, travel, and exploration. The collection spans a broad chronological field, from seven examples of beautiful incunabula produced in the fifteenth century before the invention of moveable type to books published by faculty at the College of William & Mary today in the twenty-first century.
If you have ever seen the PBS series Antiques Roadshow, then you can understand what I do here. I started working at Swem Library’s Special Collections Research Center in August and was tasked by Jennie Davy, the Burger Archives Specialist, with identifying artifacts that had yet to be cataloged (meaning the artifacts were patiently waiting for an identification number and description so they could be accessible to the public). Some of them were newly acquired, but others had been waiting in a backlog of unprocessed artifacts. After cataloging, the artifacts are entered into the Education Collection, which is now fully accessible on the Special Collections Database. So, what are some of the artifacts that I have been examining?
In addition to an impressive archive of rare books, periodicals, photographs, and other physical documents, Swem Library’s Special Collections manages the W&M Digital Archive that includes both digitized versions of some parts of the physical archive (like the Flat Hat collection) and documents unique to the digital realm. This semester, I have had the privilege to further develop the digital archive by conducting, recording, and uploading oral histories.