Like a trunk hidden in the attic of an old house, the fourth
floor of the Ned McWherter Library is home to one of the most
unique collections of rare books and manuscripts in the Mid-South.
title page of the Lidolatrie Huguenote, a 400-year-old
book bound in human skin.
The Special Collections Department of the library serves
as a repository for a multitude of hard-to-classify material.
Photographs, books and manuscripts are only a few of its many
The largest portion of the collection is the Mississippi
Valley Collection, which documents the history and culture
of the Mid-South region. With maps, interviews and printed
materials, scholars and researchers can access information
about the Civil War, black history, the civil rights movement
of the 1960s, and even 19th century entertainment with documents
that can only be found at the U of M.
"Memphis and this region are really important in modern-world
culture," says Ed Frank, associate professor of University
Libraries and curator of Special Collections. "One of the
things that makes us different from other departments is that
our patrons are from around the corner as well as from around
Researchers and media from across the globe have accessed
and used the precious materials found in Special Collections.
MTV, PBS and People Magazine are only a few examples
of the wide variety of people who contact the department in
search of information. Faculty, too, have found value in the
holdings, with several books and projects relying on the wealth
of information found there.
Although civil rights footage and information relating to
black history are the most requested items of the department,
Special Collections has many other gems that fall into no
particular category. For example, hidden within its archives
is the 400-year-old book Lidolatrie Huguenote, a French-Catholic
response to Protestantism. The most interesting thing about
this book, however, is not its age, but its binding. The book
was published in 1608 using anthropodermic binding, meaning
the cover was made from human skin.
An edition of the first-ever encyclopedia rests on
a Civil War-era letter.
Among the many other unique items found in the department
is an original set of the first encyclopedia, edited by Diderot
and D'Alembert in the 1770s in France. According to Frank,
these encyclopedias were literally "the first attempt by Western
man to document everything that was known."
Tucked within the rows of compact shelving is a flagship
collection of Memphis' historic 1968 sanitation strike.
The collection includes 40 hours worth of broadcast news and
un-aired outtakes from local and national broadcasters.
Letters and diaries from the Civil War and the Holocaust
are catalogued online so researchers worldwide can access
Although some of this precious memorabilia has been purchased
by the University, most of it has been acquired from donors.
"Some people just find stuff in their attics and bring
it to us," Frank says.
Due to the recent state budget crisis, Special Collections
is only allotted $5,000 per year for acquisitions. In contrast,
the department was averaging $20,000 per year in the 1970s.
"The last few years have been very difficult in terms
of the budget for the library," says Tom Mendina, assistant
to the dean of libraries and a member of the Friends of the
Library support group. "Our organization has tried to
help them out."
The group began in 1995, and during the 2001-02 fiscal year,
gave more than $5,000 to purchase books for different areas
of academia. Friends of the Library is funded by its members,
who pay annual dues, and by people who simply care about the
University's library system.
"We try to provide a supplement and a lift to the library,
especially in stringent budgetary times," Mendina says.
John Calipari, head coach of the Tigers basketball team,
recently supplied his own lift to the library's budget
he donated $10,000 to Friends of the Library. University
President Shirley Raines also made a donation of about 800
books, and an endowment was created in her honor by the Sparks
All the donations and advancements within the library have
one common purpose: to serve students, faculty, staff and
the community. A prime example is the Net library, which the
University community can access free of charge. If a student
needs to read William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom
for an English class, it can be downloaded for no charge from
the Net library.
"We are able to offer these services for free because
the library pays large sums of money year after year to make
these resources available to our students and faculty,"
says Dr. John Evans, who heads the Systems Department of University
Libraries. "Just a portion of this Net Library, sometimes
called e-books, was purchased for around $35,000."
Evans hopes he can eventually convert all printed material
into an electronic format, but that is a very labor-intensive
project. Over time, however, the online availability will
increase. Until then, library staff has the necessary know-how
to guide those in search of information.
"There is so much value that is added to the resources
of the library by the knowledge of its faculty and staff,"
says Dr. Sylverna Ford, dean of libraries. "They connect
the users with the resources and navigate them through those
resources. Without the people, we might as well not even have