Special Collections: Rare books support research and teaching

Author: Carol C. Bradley

The Department of Rare Books & Special Collections, located on the main floor of the Hesburgh Library, has a museum-like quality, with exhibition space and a tranquil reading room overseen by a stained-glass likeness of St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland.

Louis Jordan, head of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections

Holdings include personal and institutional libraries (Astrik L. Gabriel Collections of Early Printed Books; the Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., Collection); author-based collections (the Dante Collection, the Edward Gorey Collection); subject-oriented collections (botany, Hispanic Caribbean Literature, the O’Neill Collection of Traditional Irish Music) and much more—everything from Babylonian tablets to a complete set of annotated scripts from the Jack Benny show, donated by alumnus and two-time Emmy-winning comedy writer George M. Balzer.

In addition to rare books, holdings include significant manuscript collections, as well as collections of coins, stamps, maps, newspapers, pamphlets and posters.

What makes a collection “special”?

The criteria vary, says department head Lou Jordan. “They are things the University considers special because of value, or completeness or significance. A $5,000 volume, for example, wouldn’t be placed in the stacks.”

Any book printed before 1830 is housed in Special Collections, he notes. “Those were done on hand presses, so the print runs are smaller, and any two books in the run might not be the same.”

Books printed between1830 and 1860, are, in library parlance, considered “medium rare,” and may be housed in the stacks or in special collections. But there are exceptions there, too, says Jordan. “A book printed in New Mexico in 1890 would be very rare, because there were so few presses in the region.”

Special Collections doesn’t collect randomly. The department acquires new items based on faculty research needs and interests.

Hesburgh Library Rare Books, medieval manuscript

Recently, the department acquired an 800-year-old psalter from a Carthusian monastery destroyed in the French Revolution—a manuscript of interest to the Master in Sacred Music program. The psalter was digitized, and used as a course textbook by Margot Fassler, Keough-Hesburgh Professor of Music History and Liturgy. At the end of the course, students presented a special performance of hymns from the psalter.

Special collections is also an active teaching space, Jordan emphasizes, accommodating 125 courses per year in a small classroom. Courses taught in the classroom offer humanities students their first opportunity to do original research.

Imagine, as a young student, holding in your hands a first edition of “Moby Dick,” or the first printed copy of the Constitution. “It was printed in 1789 on rag paper,” says Jordan. “It’s still nice and bright. The Bill of Rights isn’t there—it hadn’t been added yet.”

View a photo gallery of more “behind the scenes” views of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.