Preserving the Past for the Future
With its collection of manuscripts, archives and rare and hard-to-find publications, the UA's Special Collections is a regional and cultural masterpiece.
Smiling wildly and laughing softly, Chrystal Carpenter and Veronica Reyes-Escudero entered the Special Collections' vault and made their way to the second row of stacks.
"There it is," Carpenter said, pointing at a small, nondescript book sitting upright. Opening the book, Reyes-Escudero pointed to a inscription with "semi" offered as an annotation in the margin.
Recently verified by a Princeton University researcher that Galileo Galilei himself made the notes, the first-edition book dating back to 1610 contains a number of similar annotations throughout, offering direction for corrections and additions for future publications.
The book is among tends of thousands of items within the University of Arizona Special Collections' holdings, which includes what is believed to be Father Eusebio Francisco Kino's diary, some of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' personal letters, one of J.A. Jance's earliest computers, accounts from people who know Adolf Hitler and a dirt sample said to have been gathered from a suspected UFO landing site.
“Archives, in general, are important because they preserve the treasure of knowledge over time,” said Carpenter, the manuscript and Congressional archivist for Special Collections.
Part documentation, part preservation and housed within the University Libraries, Special Collections spans a two story space full of rare books, manuscripts, maps, memorabilia, photographs – which are constantly being added to in an online digital collection – personal letters, newspapers, interviews, sheet music, recordings and other material.
The bottom floor alone holds 36 football fields worth of material representing 11,000 linear feet. According to Carpenter, much of the collection is not only informative and educational, but intriguing and, in most cases, virtually impossible to replace.
"When it is rare, unique and one of a kind, it comes here," Carpenter said.
The materials fall into a range of categories, including Arizona's territorial period and the early Southwest, Congressional papers and political affairs, borderlands communities, regional folklore, literature and the history of the UA.
"Our Southwest and borderlands collections are internationally recognized for their depth and scope. This is quite an achievement for a library of the West, which tend to be younger and do not necessarily have extensive collections," said Reyes-Escudero, who manages the borderlands collection.
Though the materials are archival, acquiring them can be an arduous feat, requiring that staff initiate contacts, nurture relationships and travel distances to inspect and repackage items to be included in Special Collections.
"Our job is to organize the collection and make it accessible. Lots of the material may come in and we don't know what the relationship they have to other materials in the collection," Carpenter said, adding that it can take anywhere from two to 10 hours to process one box.
The 53-year-old repository acquires new items and whole collections on a regular basis – by donation or by purchase, often with private funds – and, at the moment, is accepting Congressman Raúl Grijalva's papers, which will later be processed and made available to the public.
Special Collections may carry a certain cache – that it is only available to members of the UA community or active researchers. But it is, in fact, open to the general public.
People from throughout the country and around the world rely on Special Collections' holdings when primary source documents are needed.
"To have access to primary-source material is what is going to allow you to anchor your facts," said Reyes-Escudero, an associate librarian with the UA Libraries and Special Collections.
The long-established philosphy behind the Special Collections is that the UA, being a land-grant and research institution, should continue to make such researches readily available, said Roger Myers, an associate librarian and archivist.
Myers said the holdings have "intristic, evidential value" expected to remain into perpetuity.
Hence, the items are of importance to students, professors, scientists, historians, filmmakers, authors and people merely curious to learn more about any given topic, he added.
Most recently, Special Collections has been more active in showcasing its holdings through lectures, exhibitions and its work with UA faculty members and students – such as Craig Reinbold.
Reinbold, a graduate assistant with the UA Libraries pursuing his master's in fine arts in the creative writing program, has one of six positions currently funded by UA Libraries donor Kate Willock, a former UA biology instructor.
Reinbold has been scouring Special Collections for items to highlight as part of the UA Libraries publicity campaign on the holdings.
"These are things you may never read anywhere else," said Reinbold, one of 21 graduate assistants to be funded by Willock to date.
They include diary entries, deeds and speeches associated with early territorial experiences in Arizona, stories about early ranchers and politicians, details about Navajo ceremonies, correspondence between Carlos Montezuma and others, business records of individuals within the Chinese community and historical papers related to the bilingual education movement in Arizona.
"That's what I love about the Special Collections and the project I am working on," Reinbold said.
Knowing that, for instance, Father Kino ate beans for dinner and that Hitler was not fond of the color brown are nonetheless interesting.
"It's a minute detail of the life of something that is so important," he said. "It's these things that make the people and also what makes them interesting – their daily lives."