Rare book collection preserves treasured publications
Frequently, the Marriott Library hosts events to showcase the volumes within its walls. On Friday, teachers became students and learned about the rare books at the library from Luise Poulton, rare books manager, who introduced the collection and spoke of its purpose to 16 current and past faculty members.
“It’s not a collection of old books that just sit in a vault,” Poulton said. “We use them, and frequently.”
The library has more than 80,000 rare books, maps and other items that range from clay tablets to 21st-century works. This breadth allows the library to work with a variety of faculty members closely.
Donna Gelfand, former U psychology professor, used rare books to look at photos from the turn of the century and figured there must be more in store. She said the collection has increased significantly and is impressed by how many other institutions and classes take advantage of it.
Poulton brings students into the classroom frequently to hold lectures and bring awareness to the collection. One class she’s working with will use the books for a final project to not only discuss content, but the actual text, the materiality of the book and the context in which it was presented.
The lectures aren’t a show and tell, however. Several books from authors such as Benjamin Franklin, Jonathan Swift and William Shakespeare were lying on the table waiting to be flipped through and read.
Anyone can come to the Rare Books Division of Special Collections and check out original books, ask to see the “Book of Commandments,” valued at $11 million, or get their hands on a copy of the first edition of Newton’s “Principia.”
Poulton finds the experience of reading these books in the quiet of the rare books room good for students. Because belongings must be left in a cubby while books are checked out, the studying is distraction free.
“To hold a copy of Thomas Paine’s ‘Common Sense’ printed in 1776 in your hands and knowing that someone in 1776 held it, read it, passed it along — there’s something about that that you don’t get online,” Poulton said. “It’s a very human connection.”
Age is not the only determiner of rare books. They can be limited editions, have an artistic or historical value or be “vulnerable,” Poulton said.
The collection grows based on what faculty are teaching.
Michael Chikinda, a professor in the School of Music, went to the Rare Books Division to find old music scripts to study the evolution of music in presentation and materials. He was surprised to discover medieval manuscripts of music.
These rare books are getting a taste of technology, too. Currently, the library is scanning books from its Special Collections so they will be accessible online. The entire volume is scanned and available to everyone via the library’s website.
Access to these books might be easier than expected, but some are still worried about the lack of browsing through this collection.
David Pendell, an emeritus faculty member, is interested in this access to information because he worries we’ve lost the sense of stumbling upon information in the digital age.
“It’s becoming cared for but also less accessible to those of us that are interested in learning through chance and browsing,” Pendell said. “Historically in a library you can bump into something you never knew was there. It may change your life and the direction you pursue.”
One memory he has is going through books at the library and finding one that belonged to former conductor of the Utah Symphony Maurice Abravanel, still containing his inserts and notes inside. He was impressed but curious about its safety. It’s a conundrum, he said, and Poulton agrees it is a topic of debate. She said protection is necessary because there is an assumption that things will always be there, and they might not.
“Why do you want a museum? It’s exactly the same,” Gelfand said. “It protects and maintains historical material that would just be lost.”