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magazine home > archives > spring 2003 > features

The Special Collections Department at The University of Memphis buys and inherits one-of-a-kind acquisitions that are priceless to faculty and researchers.

Rare and Well Done
by Monica Whitsitt

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.

 
Rare book
 

The 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 treasures.

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 the world."

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.

 
Dr. Darnell and Dr. Lattimore
 

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 them.

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 Foundation.

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 the collection."

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