A Special Collection

An accessible repository for documents and memories preserved at the University of Chicago.
Photo by: 
Robert Kozloff
“To see history as a set of possibilities, with different courses taken or not taken—I think that’s the most vivid and interesting feature that comes from these documents.”

Second-year Natalie Friedberg didn’t know much about the Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) before taking the colloquium “Doing History Theories and Practices” last spring.

“We went in as a class and I got very excited because they have a lot of cool stuff down there that just blew my mind,” said Friedberg. “We have some of the first matter produced from printing presses. We have incunabula, which is printed paper that’s really rare, because that stuff gets thrown out usually. We have Abe Lincoln’s pie cabinet, and we have William Rainey Harper’s desk in one of the conference rooms! I touched it.” 

The SCRC, located on the first floor of the Regenstein Library, is the designated home for the University’s collection of rare books, archives, and manuscripts. The space both preserves the University’s collection of rare materials and makes these materials available to the public. University faculty, academics, students, and staff are free to access the center and its resources during its hours of operation; visitors can register for access through the Library Privileges Office.  

Various people may go to the SCRC for research on a given day, ranging from faculty members preparing for a class or consulting materials for their own research, students observing manuscripts and other materials first-hand for their classes, or visitors coming in to conduct their private research.

Friedberg’s class, a colloquium for aspiring history majors in the College, explored historiography—the principles and theory behind the writing of history—by analyzing primary source documents and objects.

“I never thought of historiography before, but thinking about history and how historians are biased is really helpful,” explained Friedberg. “You have to be skeptical of everything, even a really official-looking history textbook.”

According to Julia Gardner, Head of Reader Services at the SCRC, the Humanities and Social Sciences departments tend to make greatest use of the archived resources. “Classes for English or other Romance languages might come in. Classes in the Core might look at rare materials to enhance the studies done in class. Art History classes come in and use some of our manuscripts and artworks,” said Gardner.                  

Among the materials displayed to Friedberg’s class during their trip to the SCRC: Enrico Fermi’s lab notebook. “The librarians opened up to a page which was full of calculations, and I didn’t really get it. But there was a page where [Fermi] got this measurement which was a eureka moment, and there was a line in it that said ‘woah,’” recounted Friedberg.

The SCRC’s materials are collected from University offices, individual faculty members, student organizations, and other agencies across campus. Their collection encompasses everything from pictures of the Administration Building sit-in of 1969 to old documents of student groups, such as the UChicago Melancholy Club of 1895.

The University primarily obtains these materials through gifts and purchases. Office and campus records usually fall under the category of gifts, a long-standing tradition, Gardner explained. “Maybe someone is moving out of an office and has a lot of files—we’ll get a call. Or maybe someone’s retiring; people donate books and sometimes faculty members are big book collectors, so we might get their library.”

“Even if something is out of print and not as easy to buy… if it’s supporting an area of a faculty member’s research or someone else is starting a new area of research, we would support that,” said Gardner.

Building and adding to the collections within the University archives is the main interest of Daniel Meyer, Director of the SCRC and University Archivist. A member of the SCRC since the 1980s, Meyer began his own work with the SCRC as a continuation of the positive experience he had while working a part-time job as a graduate student in the Library acquisitions department.

According to Meyer, the motivation behind adding new material to the archives is always the same: “What we’re doing is identifying material that has permanent historical value for research and teaching, and making sure that the materials gets moved to the archives to be preserved there.”

Meyer believes that studying materials in the archives provides a special opportunity for students to recover the process by which history is actually shaped. “Students who look at these materials have a much more complex and nuanced understanding of history—whether they’re looking at the history of literature with the poetry collection and T.S. Eliot’s manuscripts, the physical sciences, with Fermi’s notebook, or Ernest Burgess and the social sciences,” explained Meyer. “To see history as a set of possibilities, with different courses taken or not taken—I think that’s the most vivid and interesting feature that comes from these documents.”  

Several categories within the University collection are devoted to students, such as the records of The Office of Student Activities, which span from 1921-1981. Part of the SCRC’s mission to preserve records and documentation of the wide gamut of student activities on campus.

“There are just so many student organizations on campus now, a wonderful array, and it’s a challenge to try and represent those organizations in a way that really would give someone twenty or fifty years from now a sense of what the broad array of activities on campus really was,” explained Meyer.  

Visitors to the SCRC are free to browse through the most complete collection of UChicago yearbooks Cap and Gown and The Gargoyle, spanning from 1895 to 1991.

“They’re accessible, visible kinds of ways to look and see campus life,” Gardner says of the yearbooks. “One thing that students find really interesting is researching the history of their dormitory or their house.”

The yearbooks are also a personal favorite of Friedberg. “I love Special Collections. I think it’s the best thing ever, I always tell my friends to at least look at the yearbooks, because the yearbooks are so cool,” said Friedberg.  

The University stores its entire collection on site, which means most of the materials can be retrieved within 30 minutes of a request. Gardner stressed the convenience offered by this setup: “We’re really fortunate here at UChicago. Some libraries you go to, [the site] is very far away, you might have to request it and wait 24 hours because someone has to drive and get it.”

Additionally, digital collections of the University archives are uploaded online on the SCRC website. A popular favorite amongst students is the University of Chicago Photographic Archive, which includes more than 20,000 images capturing the University and its history.

The SCRC also hosts regular exhibitions in the gallery located directly east of the office. “It’s a pretty active exhibit program,” explains Gardner. “The themes are usually proposed by a faculty member, graduate student, or library staff member. The materials are drawn from our holdings, so it’s usually someone who has done a fair amount of work here. Sometimes the exhibitions grow out of classes that have been taught here, or sometimes a class develops because of a planned exhibit.” The current exhibit “Closed/Out in the Quadrangles: A History of LGBTQ Life at the University of Chicago” will run until June 12, 2015.

Meyer welcomes contact from students who want to reach out to him or other members of the SCRC staff. The SCRC provides a wide range of work opportunities for students within all of its departments—rare books, archives, reader services, preservation labs, and exhibits.

“The general experience students have is that they really enjoy working here. Some of them have even changed thinking about their careers as a result,” said Meyer. “I think it’s a testament to the power of coming in contact with these original books, manuscripts, and archives—it’s an experience unlike any you can encounter elsewhere.”