I Couldn’t Say….

It might be an exaggeration to say that it’s been a dream of mine to work at a library, but I was pretty darn excited when I found out that I would be serving my graduate assistantship in Swem Library’s Special Collections Research Center. I worked one summer in the archives at my city’s local historical society, but Swem’s Special Collections is so far beyond my city’s archives that it’s like moving from a puddle into the Pacific. My previous experience wading through the donated contents of people’s attics at my local museum left me feeling inadequate when faced with the vast holdings of rare and unique materials in Special Collections.


After my introductory training, I was assigned to work on a manuscript collection, assisting the archivists with the detailed description of audiovisual materials. Sometimes working in Swem’s Special Collections does feel a little like being in a magical place that harbors undiscovered secrets just waiting to be unearthed by researchers. The labyrinth-like stacks full of rare books and one-of-a-kind documents certainly add to the atmosphere, but it’s what’s contained within those rows and rows of photographs, manuscripts, diaries, and periodicals that really gives off that feeling of being in an exciting place. I’m being a little dramatic of course, but isn’t that what archives are, unique testimonials from the past, carefully preserved for the future to discover?


Besides working with the manuscript collection, I’ve also helped in the reading room, watching researchers go through boxes of materials, and monitoring undergraduate classes. One class I observed was a modern languages class in which I ensured that the rare books where handled with care and nodded a lot as if I understood the German being spoken. I also monitored an introductory philosophy class that got to view several rare editions of important philosophical and scientific works, among them a first edition of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia (1687) and a sixteenth century edition of Aristotle’s work.


As fascinating as the Special Collections stacks are, I would say that the department’s center is the reading room, where a quiet historian or curious students peruse the materials. After all, archives are meant to be used, not collected just for the sake of collecting. Due to the rarity and sometimes delicate condition of the archival materials, Special Collections staff takes great care with how researchers handle the materials. Bags, pens, food or drink are not allowed in the reading room. Sometimes staff uses book cradles and foam blocks to support fragile books and papers and, while soft weights help to hold books open with minimal stress on the binding.

One of the more surprising discoveries about Special Collections is the extent of student interest. I expected that only history majors would show enthusiasm for archives, but at William & Mary, students from many disciplines are interested in Swem’s Special Collections. On Halloween, I helped take down a Special Collections display of physics-related books and documents in the physics library. A considerable number of students and even a few professors came by to see the display of materials, among them a first edition of Newton’s Principia (1687), annotated in Latin, a 1770 copy of Galileo’s Dialogo, and even early eighteenth century lecture notes taken by William & Mary students during a natural philosophy class. A few students were particularly interested in the extensive Latin annotations made in the first edition of the Principia, and suggested a joint research venture between the physics department and a classicist in order to understand more about them. The passion for the knowledge that can be obtained through Special Collections resources speaks not only to the student culture here at William & Mary, but to the Special Collections staff members who make an effort to facilitate and encourage student interest.


Ashley Irizarry is a graduate student in the Comparative and Transnational History Program and a 2012-2013 Archives Apprentice in the Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library.