Archives and Special Collections: A Treasure Trove
September 18, 2013
High above Wilder Bowl are dazzling treasures of artistic and historic significance.
They reside in the Oberlin College Archives and Special Collections, located in the Goodrich Room on the fourth floor of Mudd Library, which are well worth a visit. The breadth, depth, and quality of the materials in their vast collections are amazing. And the way their staffs are working with our faculty to use those materials as dynamic teaching tools is exciting.
The archives hold the permanently valuable records of the institution as well as those of individuals and organizations affiliated with the College of Arts and Sciences, the Conservatory of Music, and the city of Oberlin. These include records of Oberlin’s 14 presidents beginning with Asa Mahan in 1835 and continuing to my tenure. If you are looking for details about student life and student government, maps, master plans, art and architecture, or just about anything Oberlin, the archives is the place to find it.
The archives also has select personal papers of faculty, graduates, and other Oberlin-related individuals, as well as municipal government records of the town of Oberlin and of Russia Township. Their image collection is compendious, with more than 260,000 photographs of the college and the town.
As a history buff, I can tell you that working directly with original source material—whether letters, manuscripts or objects—makes history come to life in ways that reproductions cannot. For example, an artifact such as the Great Wooden Spoon and case with carved top from 1895 may sound boring in the abstract. But when you look at it in the original, it illuminates a very odd, and, fortunately, very brief episode in Oberlin history. The huge, intricately carved spoon, with the Greek words ho aischros labeto, “Let the ugly person receive me,” engraved on it was given to the homeliest male in the senior class of 1895, as selected by his peers. This tradition continued for a few years before disappearing. Thank goodness.
Special Collections also has a treasure trove of objects including a 15th century Italian antiphonal; the Frederick B. Artz Collection on the History of the Book; a complete letterpress studio, which is housed on the second floor of Mudd; a collection of Spanish romance novels that is unmatched on this side of the Atlantic Ocean; and much, much more.
Teaching with Treasures
Great as our collections are, what I find really exciting is the way they are being presented and used to teach our students. The Goodrich Room was renovated in summer 2012 to create better display space and more comfortable and practical work space for those using Oberlin’s collections of rare, original, and reproduced materials in printed, electronic, and digitized formats. Congratulations to Ray English, Oberlin’s Azariah Smith Root Director of Libraries, Archivist Ken Grossi, Special Collections and Preservation Librarian Ed Vermue, and their colleagues on a job well done.
The Goodrich Reading Room received new tables with electrical outlets, comfortable chairs, new lighting, and a new reception/waiting area. A new, state-of-the art classroom was created featuring an overhead document camera and a giant, flat screen television.
The renovations were driven in part by a steady rise in use of our special collections and archival collections for teaching. A growing number of faculty members bring their classes to the archive to work first-hand with their holdings. A cinema studies class, for example, visited recently so students could see an array of devices, such as a 19th century laterna magica, that were used to project still and moving images.
Ken Grossi and Ed Vermue meet with and teach dozens of classes each year, and assist faculty and students with research projects that involve use of our holdings. The collections provide insight into Oberlin's involvement in many of the significant social, religious, civil rights, and political movements of our time, including movements such as antislavery, African Americans in higher education, coeducation, missions, women's suffrage, temperance, diversity, and ecology, to name but a few.
Providing instruction has reinvigorated the archives and special collections and is a great benefit to our curriculum. To meet the demand for teaching and research, the departments are planning to remain open on Monday nights. If you haven’t been or haven’t been lately, I urge you to plan a visit. The Oberlin College Archives and Special Collections are true gems.
I’m very much looking forward to our next Convocation which will be held this Friday at 8 p.m. in Finney Chapel. Our guest will be Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison. Ms. Morrison will be here as part of the 20th anniversary celebration of the Toni Morrison Society, which moved to Oberlin College this past summer. The society’s celebration begins on Thursday night, when Dr. Herman Beavers ’81 delivers the inaugural Toni Morrison Society Lecture at 7:30 p.m. in Finney Chapel.
Toni Morrison, born and raised in Lorain, Ohio, is one of the world’s great writers and intellectuals. Her works include The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and Beloved, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988. Her most recent novel, Home, was published in 2012.
Ms. Morrison is also a brilliant, insightful speaker and a great friend of Oberlin. So I urge you to seize the opportunity to hear her speak. This is a ticketed event and we are anticipating a full house, so if you are interested in attending don’t wait until the last minute to try and get a ticket. But if you do miss out on one, you can watch the convocation on closed circuit TV in West Lecture Hall. This overflow seating is free and does not require a ticket.
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