College's Rare Books Get New Home

Posted: November 5, 2008

On November 7, Founder's Day, at 3 pm, the College will celebrate the reopening of its Archives and Special Collections, following a three-month renovation. The project enabled the College to move its rare book collection from the seventh floor of Miles-Smith into an expanded and improved space on the ground floor of Dwight Memorial Hall.

"We have a wonderful and valuable collection of rare books," said College President Joanne V. Creighton. "I'm so glad that they are now in a temperature-controlled, secure space befitting their value. It is terrific to have Archives and Special Collections so beautifully and functionally consolidated in one location."

Designed by Hill Engineers, Architects, Planners, Inc., the newly reconfigured space has a new rare book room, a reception area, a refurbished reading room that can more easily accommodate visiting groups, space for incoming collections awaiting cataloging, and a state-of-the-art security system. The renovation makes work more efficient for Jennifer Gunter King, director of Archives and Special Collections and librarian, and her small staff. "It's easier for us to know, manage, and be good custodians of the collection when it's all in one place," she said.

The renovation project has increased awareness on campus that the College has an important collection of irreplaceable cultural resources needing special treatment, King said. The collection of more than 11,000 volumes includes fragments of papyri, science treatises from the Renaissance, and early atlases including six copies of Ptolemy's Geographia. The College is also fortunate to have the Americana Collection, documents relating to the history of North America, 1730-1820, and the Valentine Giamatti Dante Collection, a major collection of illustrated editions of the Divine Comedy. "Every time you turn around, you stumble onto something extraordinary and amazing, from the earliest printed books to children's literature, and it's all here waiting to be discovered."

King hopes to dispel the notion that a person needs special permission, or a professor's letter of introduction, to have access to the special collections. "The more that students can take advantage of this resource, the better. We curate these collections so that undergraduates can experience them. At Mount Holyoke, where students are being taught by the some of the best professors in their fields, they can actually see firsthand original materials they are studying. It's a true liberal arts education. No matter what you're studying, there is something here for you."

The process has been important to King. "It has been very rewarding to me professionally to have helped create this new home for the rare books collection. It's rewarding to have been a part of the effort to ensure that these books will be available to future Mount Holyoke students and scholars for another several hundred years."

King is grateful to Creighton for her leadership and support in moving the project ahead so quickly. The capital projects committee and the board of trustees approved the plan last year, and construction began in June.

To commemorate the reopening, professor of economics James Hartley and Mellon Professor of English Christopher Benfey will offer their expert insights as to what exactly makes special collections so special. Rounding out the celebration is an exhibition, Miscellaneous Antiquities, a selection of exceptional works from the Special Collections. The volumes on display include a 1481 edition of the Divine Comedy, the first edition to be published with the commentary of Christophoro Landino and with copper plate engravings of Botticelli sketches, and John Stuart Mill's handwritten diary of a 1832 walking tour of England taken with Henry Cole.

Related Links:

MHC Archives and Special Collections

James Hartley - Faculty Profile

Christopher Benfey - Faculty Profile