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Penn State Special Collections Library Works In The Present To Preserve The Past

Students visiting the Pattee-Paterno Library tend to cluster in a few different places: The lobby, the Starbucks, or the so-called “Harry Potter Room” with its cushy chairs. Far fewer students happen upon the Eberly Family Special Collections Library, inconspicuously located on the far side of the building.

The library’s Curator and Exhibitions Coordinator, Clara Drummond, develops themes, chooses materials, and writes descriptions for each display in the dimly lit showroom. March’s display focused on the global history of books, featuring scrolls, and a copy of a book made using the first printing press.

While the showroom doesn’t seem too significant by itself, it is merely the outward face of a sprawling maze of rooms that houses the largest collection of history on campus. The library owns over 55,000 linear feet of archival material, including over 200,000 books.

Lexy deGraffenreid, the head of collection services at the Eberly Family Special Collections Library, came to Penn State as a processing archivist in February 2019. She spent three years arranging and documenting incoming collections until she was promoted to her current position last June. She leads a sub-team on collection services, which deals with the “care and the custody” of items.

“Everything from bringing collections in, making sure collections are described, making sure collections are preserved, housed, location,” she continued.

The library primarily deals with two types of materials: archival collections, which are boxes of papers, photos, and other objects, and special collections, which are books.

Just beyond the showroom and behind a vault door is the first archive, a densely packed collection of some of Penn State’s greatest treasures. Books, each of them being hundreds of years old, are painstakingly preserved according to their needs.

One of the more peculiar items in the room is a dictionary no bigger than deGraffenreid’s thumb that dates back to the 1800s. Unfortunately, she can only speculate as to what it was used for.

Adam Babetski | Onward State

“Maybe it was used by a miniaturist for a dollhouse, maybe it was just a pocket dictionary, maybe it was for someone’s entertainment,” deGraffenreid said.

Several first editions of English novelist Jane Austen’s works are housed nearby, including her 1811 classic “Sense and Sensibility.” The novel doesn’t have her name on it, though, since women were not allowed to publish books during the era.

An adjacent shelf holds a box full of Medieval manuscript leaves pulled from various books throughout Europe.

Adam Babetski | Onward State

One of the library’s priorities has been to diversify its collections. It has accordingly acquired Asian books and an entire library of Black history materials. The library seeks to maintain historical accuracy as well. The Asian books in the collection are bound with special strings, as they would have been when they were published in 1531. 

The most valuable materials in the room are from Ernest Hemingway. The library purchased a collection of the author’s works in 2021 from the descendants of Toby and Betty Bruce, who were close personal friends of Hemingway and received his writings after his death. The collection includes a notebook from 1909 that contains Hemingway’s first known work of fiction, “The Daffodil,” as well as a draft of “Death in the Afternoon” that is so rare that each page is preserved in a protective sleeve.

A small collection of ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets, the oldest artifacts that Penn State owns, sit in a box close to the door.

The first room of the facility, while impressive, barely scratches the surface of the collection. deGraffenreid estimates that 20% of the collection is stored on campus while the rest is stored in four off-site facilities.

“Naturally, not all of it can fit here in Paterno,” she said.

The collection used to be split between three different organizations: The Penn State Archives, Rare Books and Manuscripts, and Historical Collections and Labor Archives. The organizations merged permanently in 1999 but each has separate spaces in the building. 

“We do serve as the institutional repository for Penn State, but our collections are much broader than that,” deGraffenreid said. “We collect labor history, Pennsylvania history, Women’s history, Black history…a variety of topics.” 

The maps room, which is right down the hall, holds oversized materials and daguerreotypes, which is a 19th-century form of photography, of Penn State’s campus.

The nitty-gritty of the library’s operations takes place in a disheveled room in the back of the facility. It’s stacked floor-to-ceiling with history in a way that may seem haphazard to a casual observer but makes perfect sense to its workers.

The first phase of processing a new collection is called accessioning, a term for confirming that the library has an item and putting it on an official record.

“At accessioning, we’re just getting the minimal amount of detail to make it discoverable at a basic level,” deGraffenreid said. 

The second phase, processing, goes into more detail. Student workers handle the tedious task of properly categorizing and organizing new arrivals, which can take months at a time. 

“You’re effectively pulling a collection apart so that you can completely redo it and put it back together again,” deGraffenreid said.

The staff has been working on processing the personal writings of all of Penn State’s presidents for the past year, an enormous undertaking that deGraffenreid acknowledges “probably has another year left.” 

“We’ll just never have the time or the personnel to fully process all of our collections,” she said. “We really have to prioritize.” 

deGraffenreid presses a button on a sliding set of shelves to reveal the library’s collection of folios, or oversized books. One such folio is an illustration of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Salvador Dalí, which took up most of the table when it was opened. While much of the university’s collection is assembled from donations, it will occasionally purchase items, like the folio, that it deems significant.

An elevator leads to the basement of the facility and the underbelly of Penn State’s collection. To the right of the elevator is the cold storage room, which is climate-controlled to a brisk 53 degrees to preserve audiovisual materials that include footage of Penn State football’s 1986 National Championship-winning team.

“A lot of audiovisual materials, reels, film reels, audio reels, degrade naturally over time,” deGraffenreid explained. “By keeping them at the colder temperature, we slow down that rate of progression.” 

The long rows of shelves across from the cold storage room are less meticulously arranged. Eighteenth-century histories of England and Scotland are packed together with 20th-century science fiction books and various works about demons and witches. 

Adam Babetski | Onward State

The library has a dedicated outreach team that focuses on providing books for educational uses. Until recently, Penn State offered a class that taught the history of the occult that used books from the library’s collection. At the end of the semester, the students created their own pop-up exhibition, where each of them chose an item, described it, and presented it. The public was able to come in and use the collection. 

Some of Penn State’s faculty have helped to expand the library’s collection. Philip Allison Shelley, who ran the German Department from 1942 to 1962, donated his collection of rare German literature and historic children’s books to the university when he died.

John O’Hara, a famous Pennsylvania-born writer, donated his entire office to the university upon his death. Penn State has dutifully preserved its contents, which face into the main display room through a window.

Adam Babetski | Onward State

deGraffenreid is motivated to help maintain the library’s vast and unwieldy collection because of its significant academic value.

“A lot of the materials in our collection aren’t just of interest to historians, but to other disciplines,” she said.

The collection is also an important archive of Penn State’s history that deGraffenreid hopes students will learn from. 

“This is the place where you can come and find the photographs, the documentation, the evidence, in order to put those stories together,” she said.

Those interested can visit the library in person or use its online search tool.

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About the Author

Adam Babetski

Adam Babetski is a senior double majoring in broadcast journalism and medieval history and is one of Onward State's associate editors. He's from the only part of Virginia without tractors and southern accents, except Richmond (reportedly). You can follow him on Twitter @AdamBabetski for hot takes about sports. For serious inquiries, email [email protected].

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