Swemming through time
February 5, 2008
__The Special Collections Research Center stores various artifacts from the College’s storied history__
p. When tourists consider a library a point of interest, chances are that the library has more than just books.
p. The Special Collections Research Center at Earl Gregg Swem Library has four collections, including rare books, manuscripts, the university archives and the Warren E. Burger collection. There are over 35,000 rare books, 750 manuscript collections and 550 University archives collections. University Archivist Amy Schindler knows all about these treasures.
p. “There are so many things that people don’t realize we have,” Schindler said. “One of my favorite things that I like to pull out is a letter from George Washington, writing to a tutor, where he gives a recommendation about the College.” Ironically, Washington’s recommendation was that the tutor stay away from out lovely College; however, that was before he became chancellor.
p. Swem also happens to house the country’s second-largest collection of dog books, the largest belonging to the American Kennel Club. The Chapin and Horowitz Collection includes an edition of the first dog book written in English, classified as a rare book, meaning that fewer than 100 institutions have a copy. The collection is one of the primary locations in Swem shown to tourists who visit.
p. “Sometimes we [the staff] like to play a game at the front desk where we guess what the tourists will be interested in. We’ll say, ‘Oh, they look like a dog family,’” Schindler said.
p. Other rare books include a first edition copy of the Book of Mormon and a set of Diderot encyclopedias from the 1700s.
The university archives includes a collection of vintage T-shirts, mostly from the past 50 years, which feature subjects such as sports and Swem itself. Schindler expressed an interest in adding to this collection and increasing the number of student artifacts.
“I’d like to work more with student organizations that are active on campus to get material from them,” Schindler said. “Last November, we got the records of [the] Gentlemen of the College. From the 1990s to the present we have recordings, flyers [and] props.”
p. Schindler also recently received a Sigma Pi paddle from the 1940s. “The paddle is nice because it shows the student life. It’s being restored because the letters and crest are peeling off, but it’s great because it was signed by the brothers.”
p. According to the Special Collections website, “There is a gavel made from wood taken from the Wren Building prior to restoration, and a piece of the live oak that stood for centuries near the entrance to the College on Jamestown Road.” There are pieces of Lord Botetourt’s coffin and part of the 1717 bell from the Wren Building. Also in the collection are two 60-pound boundary stones, which were used when the College’s grounds were first being determine, as well as letters written by alumni like Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and John Tyler and Chief Justice John Marshall.
p. One of the most memorable displays that the College displays in the Special Collections Research Center is the world’s-largest collection of “’Twas Night Before Christmas” books. A former library director donated this collection. Most of the collections have been donated by alumni, students and professors.
p. “We have friends, usually alumni, that will search eBay looking for things to give us,” Schindler said.
p. The center receives limited funding, but donors often reserve such money for specific uses, such as buying colonial material, or memorabilia relating to King William and Queen Mary. Despite the limited budget, the center owns enough material to require off-site storage. It is required by law to keep College records and annually receives an average of 12 boxes of formal papers from the president. It also keeps student health records for 10 years after the students leave.
p. The papers of the late Chief Justice Burger — who was chancellor from 1986 to 1993 — comprise the largest section of the Special Collections Research Center. A replica of his retirement office behind a glass wall in the Research Center displays items such as his personal satchel and chancellor robes. To the right of the desk stands a picture of Burger with current College Chancellor Sandra Day O’Connor. Also included in the replica is a sketch done by the former chief justice, as well as a replication of a bust that he sculpted.
p. Burger’s professional and personal papers will be kept private for the next 20 to 25 years from everyone except Burger archivists.
p. “It’s traditional for chief justices to retire and give their papers to an archive and ask for them to be closed for a certain period of time. Often, it’s until everyone on the court he served with has retired, or after his children have died. He was a very private man; his family was private,” Schindler said.
p. Burger’s family visits the College at least once a year.
The late chief justice’s papers are stored below the ground floor, under the Special Collection Research Center stacks. The rows of shelving hold papers in acid-free folders and archival boxes, which are carefully stored at a temperature of 68 degrees with a humidity of 35 to 45 percent. One must enter a code in order to visit the storage center. Some sections require a key, and multiple alarms connect to the police department. Among other important and expensive artifacts in the collection is a fraternity pin insured at $10,000, which illustrates the necessity for so many levels of security.
p. Students wishing to use the Special Collections Resource Center must first fill out a registration form and turn in their student ID. The staff supervises readers in a special reading room. Students are not allowed to bring any personal items with them, including food and drink. Gloves are frequently required for handling books, and, in some cases, pages must be turned by a member of the staff. Books cannot leave the reading room, and only the staff is permitted to remove a book from its shelf.
p. With all of the priceless items in the Special Collections Resource Center, it’s easy to understand all of the safety precautions. After all, once the original copy of the College’s charter is gone — it’s gone.