Campus News

June 15, 2011

Campaign Emory

Curator, librarian donate rare historical works

Randall K. Burkett and his wife have donated much of their store of rare historical materials to MARBL's African-American Collections.
Randall K. Burkett and his wife have donated much of their store of rare historical materials to MARBL's African-American Collections.

By Terri McIntosh

Randall K. Burkett is the son of collectors. His father had more than 1,000 pocketknives. His mother accumulated paperweights, thimbles, bells and other knickknacks. "She collected things she loved," he says.

Growing up with these humble archives stirred his interest in collecting, which led to bigger things. Today he curates the African American Collections in Emory's Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL). He and his wife, retired librarian Nancy Burkett, have given much of their personal store of rare historical materials to the library.

"It's a rich collection for research," Nancy Burkett says, "perfect for a university."

The Burketts have entrusted Emory with these treasures because of the University's efforts to strengthen the African American voice within MARBL, Randall Burkett explains.

"Emory has made a major commitment to building the African American Collections, not just with financial resources, but with staff and programs," he says. "The staff has been enormously open to thinking about new kinds of materials and ways to access them.  And, having spent many hours encouraging others to trust Emory, we wanted to show that this institution has our confidence as well."

Activist's papers

Among the books, broadsides, pamphlets, funeral fans, photographs and other materials the Burketts have donated are the papers of William H. Scott, who fled slavery in Virginia at age 12 and became an aide-de-camp to a Union Army officer, serving until the war's end. Scott went on to be a teacher, minister and political activist, one of the 29 founding members of the Niagara Movement, which was the predecessor of the NAACP.

Scott's grandson, on his deathbed, gave the papers to Randall Burkett to ensure his grandfather's story would be preserved. The Scott archive includes a Confederate battle sword, which was displayed in the Burketts' library for years, much to the delight of visiting children.

The couple also has given 347 rare books on African American history, politics and culture, including a series of children's books; and 10 boxes of little-known African American periodicals, including some that are the only existing copies.

Their collection of collective biographies tells the stories of thousands of African Americans. "Women Builders," for instance, chronicles the lives of seven African American women who founded institutions for the African American community. It was published around 1931.

The Burketts' broadsides include an extremely rare 1858 call for protest against the Dred Scott decision from Boston abolitionist William Cooper Nell.

Dearth of study materials

Randall Burkett's interest in African American studies began when he was a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School working toward a master's degree in religious history. He was struck by the absence of information on African Americans in his course materials and decided to focus his research there.

After Harvard, he pursued a doctorate at the University of Southern California.  Finding few primary source materials in the library, he began buying his own materials at antiquarian bookshops and library sales, starting with a 1927 first edition of "Who's Who in Colored America."

While he studied for his doctorate at the University of Southern California, Nancy Burkett enrolled in library school at UCLA. The two had met as students at American University and married soon after graduation, and they were destined to share their love of historical research—both with each other and with their communities.

Nancy Burkett spent her career at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass., strengthening the collections and helping to build the acquisitions endowment. Randall Burkett worked at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester before accepting the associate directorship of Harvard's W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research.

Burkett became curator of MARBL's African American Collections in 1997, a position tailor-made for a research historian with his own substantial collection of rare materials. During his 14 years of leadership, he has helped attract many of MARBL's highest-profile acquisitions, including the papers of writer Alice Walker, historian Carter G. Woodson, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Complementary interests

Emory's collections focus on the freedom struggle, black print culture, blacks and the left, African American literature and the arts, and expatriate literary and cultural figures. Informed by the couple's research backgrounds and driven by Randall Burkett's penchant for collecting, the Burketts' private donations span those categories. 

Some people are compelled to collect, Nancy Burkett says, and the Burketts have seen some fascinating private collections during their professional travels. One woman whom they visited had gathered a priceless assortment of miniature medieval Korans, children's books, and miniature books, along with balls of rubber bands and thousands of hotel soaps.

As for Nancy Burkett, she prefers to leave the collecting to her spouse. "I collect collectors," she says with a smile.

The Burketts' gift is part of Campaign Emory. Gifts through Campaign Emory help Emory Libraries bring together scholars, unique materials, state-of-the-art digital services, and technology within MARBL to create a living humanities laboratory.

File Options

  • Print Icon Print