Article by Claire Armann | Photos by Sean Diffendall
On the second floor of Morris Library, you’ll find the Special Collections Gallery and Reading Room. You may have stopped in for a class visit focused on a specific topic. Or, you may have seen the low lighting and weren’t sure if you could drop in. I’m here to tell you that you can—and you should.
Because the materials in Special Collections are older and more fragile, the lights are dimmed to protect them. So, even if it looks darker during the day, rest assured you are allowed to come in and take a look.
When I first started school at UD in 2015, I had no idea what Special Collections was. It wasn’t until I visited during the spring semester of my freshman year for a British literature class that I found out. Now, not only have I worked here as a student assistant for over two years, but I am also extremely (some may say annoyingly) passionate about the books we have.
Everyone finds something special here, so hopefully you can make your way up and check out some of our items for yourself. Here are seven items that I believe to be some of the coolest in our collection that you can start with:
Within Special Collections, we have many individual collections. One of those is mini books. Stored within little paper pockets inside boxes resembling shoeboxes, mini books are books that are smaller than 13 cm in height. These books require extra special care because of their size.
In some instances, the book is so small that it can be a challenge to read the words on the pages or even open the book. One is so tiny that it is accompanied by a mini-magnifying glass, which makes something seemingly impractical much more manageable and much cuter.
George Washington’s Hair and Signature
In a manuscript box deep in the Special Collections stacks, there is a tuft of crispy grey hair belonging to our own George Washington. In my opinion, it’s one of the most surprising items in our collection. It’s also one of the first items I was shown when I started working here.
While the hair might not necessarily be a research resource the way an annotated copy of a manuscript would be, it definitely provides context for historians to use in their research and can be something to make a paper or research topic stand out.
In addition to hair, we also have a signature of Washington’s, which is actually ripped in thirds. To prevent both items from damage, the hair and the signature are stored in protective folders.
In addition to rare books, Special Collections has a lot of art. If it is rare, collectible or special to Delaware, there is a chance that it might be here. This particularly unique item fits that bill. It is a tape measure with words on the tape itself.
In order to reach the working ruler on this tape measure, you have to pull out several feet worth of random facts alongside cute little pictures, all seemingly hand-drawn. Entitled “20’ of facts, or, What happens every minute,” the tape measure lists fact after fact. It begins, “Every minute we generate more data and information than is currently in the Library of Congress,” and continues with additional facts, including “Every minute 9,500,000 gallons of water are depleted from global aquifers threatening the habitat and livelihood of large parts of the world’s population.”
It is so interesting to think about the process of putting this together, from selecting which facts to include to physically writing everything out on the tape measure. What would you say with 20 feet of space to fill?
In the vault of Special Collections, there is a page from the Gutenberg Bible, and it’s one of my favorite items in our collection. The Gutenberg Bible, printed by Johannes Gutenberg in present-day Germany, was one of the first books to be mass-produced and helped introduce mass production of books to the West. Printed in the mid-1400s, less than 50 copies remain, and they are considered some of the world’s most valuable books.
Not only is this page rare, but it is also pretty cool to think about how far it has gone to be here, and how much this specific item could have potentially influenced the rest of our collection. Hypothetically, if this book did not help introduce print books to the West, there is really no way to know what our collection would look like now.
Do you want to know a secret? This book—a historical essay on the Magna Carta of King John—has a secret. When the edge of the book is bent in a certain way, it reveals a hidden image on the edges of the book known as a fore-edge painting. It’s pretty interesting because without bending the pages all you see is the gold exterior. Unless you know what you’re looking for, you could completely miss the picture.
Each book within the fore-edge collection has a different image on the edge. Depending on the book and how old it is, the image could be distorted. In our collection, all of the books seem to have a similar brownish/red binding with a gold edge. What look like very similar books on the outside all stand very distinct when their fore-edge images are revealed.
Another collection within Special Collections is the Lincoln collection. This collection is for those history fanatics that are passionate about the Great Emancipator. From young Abraham Lincoln fanfiction to a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Lincoln collection has it all.
Even though Special Collections mostly has books and manuscript pages, it is also home to items you would not traditionally associate with such a collection, like Abraham Lincoln’s blanket. Can you imagine being such an important figure in American history that even your blankets are kept on display? Using items like this in your research will really add something extra for it to stand out. If you are a Lincoln fanatic, it could be exciting to see an item like this too.
To highlight the collection, there is a case to the left of the Special Collections Gallery that typically has Lincoln materials on display.
Over the years, many pop-up books have been donated to the collection. While there are a lot of pop-up children’s books in the collection, many are geared toward adults and unlike anything you might have seen before. There is, for instance, a book that has pop-up numbers counting one through 10, but when you read the book the opposite way, the pop-ups show different numbers.
But the book that stands out most to me is Beauty and the Beast. Most of us have seen various film, stage and book adaptations of the story, but this version shows intricate paper cutouts of the castle and characters in such detail that it adds to the familiar story in a unique way. On top of being generally beautiful, it is also intriguing to think about the amount of effort and attention to detail that goes into making a book of this kind.
These are just a few of the unique items you’ll find within Specials Collections. You can find more by searching Special Collections finding aids, or walking through the doors of the Special Collections Gallery to visit and talk to one of the librarians.
Every week there is something new to discover. I am constantly finding items that are silly or really cool. Being able to work with the items while they are being processed is a truly unique experience.
Whether you’re a student trying to spice up your research paper, a faculty member trying to integrate primary source material into a course, or a student just trying to find something rare and unusual to show your parents when they come to visit, Special Collections has something for you. Stop by and see what you’ll find.
Claire Armann is a senior English major and women studies minor. She has worked as a student assistant in the Special Collections Department for more than two years, and most enjoys her coworkers and seeing all the different items the collection receives. On campus, she is a member of Gamma Sigma Sigma and the E-52 Student Theatre. She also works part-time as the communications and events intern for the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce.