Special Collections: The Anchor of University Libraries

by Luba Zakharov

At the heart of every academic library lie unique resources that anchor the general collections. At Azusa Pacific, these rare items comprise the Special Collections, which include historic primary-source materials. Given the digital proliferation of books, journals, and aggregated databases now available for online research, why do special collections matter to libraries? In 2009, the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) asserted that university libraries’ special collections “increasingly define the uniqueness and character of individual research libraries.”

On APU’s Christ-centered campus, our vast Special Collections enriches learning through exhibits, such as John Muir: A Centennial Remembrance (1914-2014); events, such as Dennis Kruska’s lecture at the opening reception for the John Muir exhibit; and through classroom instruction, including California history resources used by Bryan Lamkin, Ph.D., professor in the Department of History and Political Science. Because special collections preserve and transmit history and culture, they enable faculty and students to enter into a deep learning that supports, informs, or refutes secondary sources, making way for new scholarship that can inspire outside scholars to conduct research at APU.

According to ARL, special collections include “rare books, generally dating from the dawn of European printing to some point in the 19th century,” with “manuscripts, archival collections of mixed formats including prints, drawings, and photographs, and graphic materials such as maps, theatrical publications, pamphlets, advertising and posters, and sometimes newspapers, which were not published in book format.” Counted among APU’s vast holdings are the Dead Sea Scroll fragments, a cuneiform tablet, and rare medieval manuscripts—handwritten copies of the Vulgate—that date back to the 11th century. These can be found in the Leaf Collection and include historic Coptic, Armenian, Latin, Italian, Hebrew, and Greek leaves (among many others) that hold religious significance, represent the history of fine printing, and serve as valuable resources for students in history, languages, and graphic design.

Initial access to our Special Collections holdings can be gained through the APU library website. Someone studying the Gold Rush would be impressed by the George Fullerton Collection, comprising outstanding materials on that period and the Westward Expansion and Overland Travel, and teeming with rare, first-edition printings, diaries, and maps. The Weber Collection offers one of the most unique, untapped collections related to the Catholic Church in the U.S. and the West, compiled and authored by historian Monsignor Francis J. Weber, ACA. In literature, APU boasts a growing, ethnic American authors collection, including a recent acquisition of Langston Hughes materials. Further, the library has amassed writings by collaborative Christian communities, such as the Clapham Saints and the Chrysostom Society, as well as an extensive collection of material from C.S. Lewis and the British literary discussion group known as the Inklings.

According to Ken Otto, MLIS, associate professor and Special Collections librarian, the most used is the Photograph Collection, which represents the history of photography from the 1860s and includes stereo cabinet cards, lantern slides, and digital images. In addition, the often-accessed Azusa Foothill Citrus Collection and the MacNeil Family Collection provide historic documents of Azusa.

These and other primary-source materials often reveal little-known facets of history and, therefore, have been known to change the course of scholarship within a field of study. Artifacts, such as letters from the Civil War, offer students the ability to read handwritten, eyewitness accounts, allowing comparison with other primary sources and enabling them to arrive at independent conclusions about historical circumstances and events. Similarly, newly acquired letters from John Muir and his family provide a new lens on the Hetch Hetchy fight.

These resources in hardcopy bring the past into the present in powerful ways. And although the future of Special Collections includes making rare items available in digital format, nothing compares to a face-to-face engagement with authentic artifacts—such as seeing an original illuminated manuscript—when it comes to giving students a sense of experiencing history firsthand. APU’s extensive Special Collections provide the depth, breadth, and weight that grounds scholarly research in a way that only these genuine treasures can. The sight of a book signed by Napoleon Bonaparte triggers wonder and spurs questions about where it came from, how it got into his hands, and why he signed it. Special Collections stands as a testament that history encompasses more than the text of a rare document—the power of these irreplaceable items lies in the fact that they are themselves pieces of history, like a Gutenberg Leaf or the 1611 King James Bible. They transform and inspire students’ curiosity, fueling the passion to pursue advanced studies and contribute to history.

This transformational element has been credited, in current research, to the 1998 Boyer Report, which, in an effort to improve undergraduate education, recommended that undergraduate education include students’ engagement in research- and inquiry-based learning. This new education model provided 10 recommendations, with the main focus on collaborative teaching and learning, which opened the door to mining special collections to create original research. Because of the historical, ephemeral, and sometimes sacred format of rare resources, APU’s Special Collections urge exploration and provide an avenue for students to engage, observe, and problem solve, making research meaningful and personal. This active learning, with the teacher as the guide, transforms education. At Azusa Pacific, this interaction facilitated by Special Collections creates communities of faculty and students who, alongside one another, discover, create, apply, and transmit new knowledge. Such a dynamic process allows the university to align with the library in a symbiotic and organic way that anchors the institution’s mission to develop disciples and scholars equipped to conduct research effectively, seek truth confidently, and nurture imaginative inquiry in others.

Luba Zakharov, M.A., MTS, MLS, MFA, librarian, and curator of Special Collections ard rare books. lzakharov@apu.edu

Originally published in the Spring '16 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.