March 28, 2003

Rare Manuscripts Draw Curious

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A journey through time, back to the year 2,000 B.C., is still beyond the scope of modern technology. However, seeing clay tablets from 4,000 years ago only requires a journey to the library. The Rare and Manuscript Collections in Kroch Library are open to everyone and include tablets inscribed with cuneiform writing as well as handwritten manuscripts from the medieval period, works by modern authors and everything else in between.

According to the Cornell University Library website, the collections consist of “300,000 printed volumes, more than 70 million manuscripts and another million photographs, paintings, prints and other visual media.” The collection is also home to the Cornell University Archives, which document the history of the University and of the Ithaca area.

The collection began with Cornell’s first president, Andrew Dickson White, a man who Katherine Reagan, the curator of rare books, described as “a passionate book collector.” Before his death, White donated 50,000 volumes to the library. White’s own interests have played a role in shaping the focus of the collection.

“We have one of the largest collections on the French Revolution outside Paris,” Reagan said. The University also has the largest collection on witchcraft in America, thanks also to White’s influence.

Willard Fiske, Cornell’s first librarian, also contributed to the collection. According to Prof. Emeritus Don Eddy, English, former curator of rare books, Fiske gave the library “the world’s best collections of Dante and Petrarch and his Icelandic literature collection.” Reagan pointed out that many collectors like to donate their collections to libraries “to make sure that they’re there for future generations to learn from.” Other contributors over the years have included, but are certainly not limited to, Gerhard Mennen and the Nicholas H. Noyes family.

Reagan explained that the library’s “greatest, most spectacular and most notable collections almost all came by gift” because they would have been too expensive for the University to have purchased independently. Mennen was responsible for donating Cornell’s copy of Shakespeare’s first folio, published in 1623. The Noyes family donated a copy of the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln’s own handwriting.

Cornell’s is one of only five such copies of the address, and it is the only copy that is owned by a private institution. The others are located in government repositories such as the Library of Congress and the White House. However, the library tries “to focus on the research value of our materials rather than the financial value,” Reagan said.

Another rare possession is the cuneiform tablets. Produced 4,000 years ago, they are the oldest item in the University’s collection. Scholars from the Department of Near Eastern Studies have translated the cuneiform text. What do they have to say and what are the tablets for?

“Business records,” Reagan revealed. “How much land somebody owned or how much grain was set aside for the gods that week.”

Of course, items such as those in the collection require special care to maintain their “long-term stability and integrity,” Reagan noted. The collection is stored in a vault, separated from the public section of the library by a firewall. To ensure optimum conditions for the manuscripts, the vault is kept at 68 degrees and 45 percent humidity at all times.

The library also has various security measures in place. These include an alarm system, security cameras and observation by the staff.

“We guard these things not so no one can ever see them, but so they’ll be here for future generations of students and scholars,” Reagan said.

Due to the fragile nature of many of the items, they cannot be checked out of the library. However, anyone can see them by simply asking.

“We do have one of the most open rare book and manuscript libraries in the country,” Reagan said.

She cited the fact that anyone, including faculty, students or community members, is welcome to use the library free of charge.

“You just need to be curious,” she said.

Students are especially encouraged to explore the collection.

“If you’re just starting out here, I hope you’ll look into this more,” Eddy said. “It can become a great source of pleasure.”

Reagan added that about half of the collection’s use is by undergraduates.

Jennifer Fabbrini ’06 wasn’t previously aware of the types of items included in the collection or the fact that anyone can see the items just by asking.

“I’m totally going now,” she said. “That’s so cool.”

Archived article by Courtney Potts