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What’s so special about Special Collections?

March 17th, 2006

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Amateur photographer Albert Wheaton Terhune documented turn-of-the-century Louisville.

Three copies are known to exist of the groundbreaking 1824 work “Memoire sur les equations algebriques” by Norwegian mathematician Niels Henrik Abel. One of those is at the University of Louisville. So, too, are Stalin-era Russian film stills that Roger Manvell, a film and theater historian, used to illustrate his books.

These are among thousands of items sequestered in the lower level of Ekstrom Library in Rare Books and in Photographic Archives. Together, they are known as Special Collections — special because their holdings are rare, unique and exceptional.

Rare Books’ collections emphasize literature, popular culture and the history of books and printing. Among its holdings are literary manuscripts, vintage World War posters, antique maps, materials that document the cultural life of Louisville and historic mathematics and astronomy texts that draw researchers from throughout the world.

A collection of each J.D. Salinger work up to 1970 in every language in which it was published that Salinger bibliographer Donald Fiene compiled stands out as one of several hidden treasures, said Curator Delinda Buie. Others are Kentucky maps that date to 1635 and the hand-colored engravings in “Description de l’Egypte,” the work Napoleon commissioned during his Egyptian campaign in 1799.

Rare Books’ holdings have been used to research books and articles — scholarly and nonacademic — exhibitions, theses and dissertations in the United States and in Europe, Buie said. They also have been used to do research for stage sets and television documentaries.

Some people even consider a peek at the holdings a special gift. Appointments just to look at collections have been made as presents for friends and family, she said.

Next door to Rare Books is Photographic Archives.

Among photo archives’ most well-known collections are Standard Oil of New Jersey and the papers of its director, Roy Stryker. With an astounding 202,000 negatives, prints and transparencies in the SONJ collection, other smaller and less well-known collections can be overshadowed. They become hidden gems.

One of these is a set of 1907 Louisville photos by amateur photographer Albert Wheaton Terhune. They are, said Curator Andy Anderson, “a nice accidental document of the city.” Terhune photographed the city while in town on a temporary business assignment. Some of the buildings he captured on film no longer exist.

But people don't have to be researching Louisville to find resources in the photo archives. The holdings encompass a wide variety of subjects from forensic photography to photos taken around the world by photojournalists and amateur photographers.

Photographic Archives’ holdings are about 85 percent local history photos, 10 percent national and world history and a 5 percent mixed bag of fine art photos, photographic process information, photo equipment and just plain weird stuff, said photo wrangler Bill Carner.

Research in the collections also doesn’t have to be academic.

“Ken Burns has used at least one photo archives picture in most of his PBS documentaries,” Carner said, and he used many for ‘Baseball.’ “Our photos have been used in books about beer, on the cover of an Annie Proulx short story-collection and on record jackets and CDs.”

Photo archives staff will help researchers find what they’re looking for, or help them find something else if the archives doesn’t have exactly what they want, Carner said — “Nobody walks away (empty-handed).” The archives also sells copies of photos to researchers.

Special Collections is open Monday through Wednesday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

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