If you are ever offered the opportunity to tour a university library’s special collections department, say yes. Howard and I got just such a tour today deep in the basement of the Harold B. Lee Library on BYU campus. On our way in, they gave us bright red visitors badges and our very own security guard. Though really his job was to protect all the things from us, so I guess he wasn’t really our guard. We also had three librarian archivists leading us on the tour to show us the coolest things. It was part sales pitch “See, we’ll take good care of the things that you give us.” But mostly they were excited to showcase their collection and genuinely thrilled at the history that they’ve collected, restored, and preserved. Justifiably so. I came away filled with awe, not just for the things they showed me, but for the dedication and love that goes into making sure that generations to come will be able to see the same things.
The first thing we noticed were the shelves themselves.
They looked like a wall when we first entered the vault room. But they move to create aisles so that librarians can find the materials they are seeking.
It was impressive to see these massive rows slide around noiselessly. We were cautioned to be wary about being between them if they began to move. They have sensors that are supposed to prevent motion if something is there, but the casual way that they mentioned sensors failing made me sure it is a thing that has happened more than once. Fortunately only some metal stools have thus far been sacrificed to the gods of mechanical shelving.
Our first stop was where they keep the first printings of The Book of Mormon. I was startled when the librarian pulled one out of its box and let us hold it.
I’ve seen one before, but not to touch. I was awed to be in contact with a piece of my religious history. I was also impressed with the array of first editions in different languages that they had.
The early Mormon people were not wealthy. It speaks of how much they reverenced this book that the constructions and bindings are all so beautiful.
I spent a lot of time in general looking at the bindings and details of books. I noticed how many of the older volumes had ridges on their spines.
I asked if those ridges were decorative or structural. It turns out to be a result of the binding methods that were used.
They showed us one of the oldest “books” in existence. A cuneiform tablet.
There we all were, six of us staring in awe at this evidence of the first writing of humanity. It was thousands of years old. It is also a receipt for beer.
We didn’t have a chance to see the most elaborate illuminated manuscripts, but this lesser one was still amazing.
The gold shined across the pages and we could see that all the letters were hand drawn. I could have stared at that for a very long time. But there was a different wonder to see. For a time it was popular to create hidden paintings on the edge of book pages. My photo does not do this justice. Fortunately the internet can show you more clearly.
Seeing this one kind of makes me want to take some of my One Cobble books, the really thick ones, and paint something on the edges.
I’d mentioned Jane Austen, so they took me to where the Austen books were. A librarian took this first edition copy of Emma and put it into my hands.
I’d seen this pattern on endpapers of books before, but figured that it was some sort of 70’s thing. Instead it appears to be authentic to the era when Austen was publishing.
I would have loved more time to look at each of these things, to sit with them and really comprehend each one individually. The immensity of what they have down there is staggering. There are fifteen miles of shelving and they’ve just been given five more miles. More than once I was glad of our guides, because I would have had to wander to find a way out.
Books are not the only things they have. This is the Oscar for the movie Camelot.
These days Oscars are not allowed to be sold or donated. They are supposed to go back to the academy. This one was acquired by special collections before those rules were created. I love that you could see the place around Oscar’s legs where he’d been picked up and carried, or perhaps held aloft in triumph.
We got to peek at the cold vault, though we didn’t go inside.
Instead week peeked at it through a window while standing in the yellow lit ante chamber. Film has to be kept cold. It also has to sit in the ante room and come slowly up to temperature before it can be manipulated. The yellow light did strange things to vision. We didn’t stay there long.
The library is making massive efforts to digitize as much of the collection as they can and to make it available online. This set up is for exactly that purpose.
It allows for simultaneous photography of both pages while protecting the book and the spine. All a human has to do is raise the glass, turn a page, lower the glass and photograph again.
They’ve lots of books yet to do.
I walked out of the building with a renewed respect for librarians. They were as excited to show us the amazing things as we were to see them. I could hear in their voices how much they value history, which was why it felt so strange that they’d like to have some of our papers. This is why we got the tour, they want to create a Howard and Sandra Tayler collection into their massive archive. They reach out to alumni who are creators with this sort of request and they found us. This leaves me feeling honored and…with an odd feeling I don’t quite have a name for.
To be remembered is the dream, isn’t it? I’ve read essays from scholars who create treatises on the correspondence of Jane Austen. In daydream moments, I’ve looked at letters and journals of my own and wondered if someday there would be a researcher glad to have them, or at least my great grandchildren might be interested in family stories. Now a library actually wants these things. They are things which have been taking up space in my house because of that daydream. Yet I’ve seen the preservation infrastructure that they have. I know how much all that effort must cost and I can’t imagine anything that I produce being worth the expense to preserve it for generations. Then I think of all six of us hovering in amazement around a little stone beer receipt. None of us have any way of knowing what future generations will want to reference.
So, yes there will be a Howard and Sandra Tayler collection in the Special Collections of the BYU Library. We don’t know yet what will be in it, nor how much will be public during our lifetimes. But if nothing else I can stop having to decide to throw out things which might be interesting for future generations, but which I haven’t the space to store.
Special collections is well worth your time to visit and if you are so lucky as to be offered a tour. Say yes.