December 13, 1999
Volume 52, No. 15
Woodruff Library's Special Collections is fast becoming 'something extraordinary' at Emory
As any true lover of literature knows, reading a great work is one thing, but holding a first edition is quite another. How much more special, then, is it to feel in one's hands the frayed edges of an original manuscript, on which were first deposited the words later to be enshrined in the canon?
More and more Emory students--not to mention scholars and researchers from around the country and the world--are discovering that sensation within the confines of Special Collections on the 10th floor of Woodruff Library. Last year 1,430 researchers registered with the department while doing some kind of research; measuring its holdings in shelf space, the department now boasts nearly 11,000 linear feet of manuscript material and another 5,000 feet of books and other items.
Over the last 15 years or so, the department has evolved from one that featured a fine collection of items of mostly regional interest to one whose holdings rank among the very best of research institutions in the world. Recent acquisitions of papers by Malcolm X, Ted Hughes, Alfred Uhry and James Dickey have grabbed headlines, and they only scratch the surface. Also archived in Special Collections are rare books, University records, photographs, documents, even artifacts and mementoes.
"It's really become something extraordinary," said English Professor Ron Schuchard of the literary collections. Schuchard has worked with Special Collections for nearly 20 years, mostly helping to develop its Irish literature holdings. Comprising the work of modern writers like Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Derek Mahon, along with literary giants like W.B. Yeats, the Irish collection is simply without peer outside the emerald shores.
Following the hiring of literary curator Steve Enniss in 1994 and African American studies bibliographer Randall Burkett in 1997, Special Collections began to acquire high-profile materials at a much faster rate than before, and Enniss and Burkett have deservedly been in the spotlight.
But acquisitions are only part of the story, according to Director Linda Matthews. "So often when you talk about Special Collections, the people who get the attention are the acquisitions people--who do a wonderful job--but there is so much else that has to go on to make those acquired materials available," she said.
Hughes' collection of papers, for example, weighed in at two-and-a-half tons; someone has to go through it all and catalog it. Senior archivist Susan McDonald and University archivist Ginger Cain head up those efforts. For reference assistance to researchers, coordinator Laura Mickum and her associates Kathy Shoemaker and Vicki Hesford are on hand. And supporting everyone are the undergraduate and graduate students often in the trenches, sifting through the documented crevices of writers' lives.
In the past, access to collections such as Emory's has been limited to those who could actually afford to make the trip to campus, but not anymore. First, the library now offers travel fellowships funded through its literary collection fund for scholars to come from all over the world. Hugh Haughton from the University of York was the first Woodruff Library Fellow, coming to Emory this fall to study the Irish collection.
But even researchers unable to leave their own offices will soon have access to some of Special Collections' holdings. Since 1997 the Selected Archives at Georgia Tech and Emory (SAGE) Project, directed by archivist Naomi Nelson, has worked to digitize material located in the libraries of both institutions. Funded by the Woodruff Foundation, the project has already made available online portions of the Witness to the Holocaust Project files, the Ralph McGill papers and other collections. Enniss has also begun an electronic poetry project in conjunction with the library's Beck Center.
"We're aware of the significance of these collections, and one commitment we have made is to try to make them available to people who can't come across the waters to see them," Matthews said.
One constituency already benefiting greatly is Emory students. Special Collections works with faculty and even reaches out to them to bring students into the department and allow them access to material relevant to courses. "There's no greater reward than seeing a student's face when they're handling for the first time the manuscript of a poem they love," Schuchard said. "It's awe-inspiring."
It can be achievement-inspiring, too. Senior Danielle Sered, recently named the University's 16th Rhodes Scholar, has helped catalog the Irish collection for a couple years now. Sered, who will earn her master's in English at Oxford University in England, has a particular research interest in female Irish poets.
"Danielle has been such a tremendous help to us in organizing a number of the Irish poets' archives," Matthews said. "I like to think that her experience here has broadened her education and her experience at Emory."