UNT's Willis Library Archives Tiny Ledends and Texas Relics
By Ron Johnson
Denton Live July-Dec 2012
Don Vann gingerly lifts the cover of the first edition in his hand A Christmas Carol
by Charles Dickens. Smiling, Don points to the hand-painted etching of Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball commissioned by Dickens, who published the book at his own expense. In the scene, the blood-red vest of the fiddler and the canary yellow of Mrs. Fezziwig’s dress are as vibrant now as they were 169 years ago. The “beaming and loveable” Fezziwig family and their employees radiate affection as the foppish Mr. Fezziwig leads them into dance with the shuffle of his candy cane-striped stockings. “Dickens lavished so much care on this,” says Don, treating the book like a treasure. “He didn’t make any money on it. He was so disappointed.”
Like a father tucking his child in a crib, Don lowers the classic back into its custom-made, padded bookcase. He is visiting Room 437 on the top floor of the Willis Library at the University of North Texas, home to the Rare Books and Texana Collections, which contain an estimated 25,000 items including Victorian-age Bibles, original maps of the Republic of Texas, pop-up books from the 19th century, and smaller-than-a-penny reference books. “I was a child of World War II and books just didn’t seem available. When I got my hands on a book, it was a very precious thing,” says Don, who began collecting Victorian literature in 1965. “There is something sensual about holding a book in your hand that you don’t get with a Kindle or any electronic readers. It’s just not the same.”
Don, who taught Dickens to generations of UNT students, and his wife Dolores donatedtheir first edition of A Christmas Carol
last year – one of many donations made to UNT by collectors worried that their books and memorabilia will be lost to researchers or ruined by conditions in the outside world. For instance, Jeane Dixon, the famous psychic who supposedly predicted the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, donated tickets for a public reading of A Christmas Carol
that Dickens delivered in the U.S. in 1867. “What a treasure,” beams Don, staring at the yellow tickets inside a Dickens book with its cover torn off. The Rare Book section alone contains 12,000-plus books, from 18th century tomes by Samuel Johnson to signed editions by modern-day author Willa Cather. “Outside of this controlled climate they deteriorate,” notes Don while looking through a first edition of David Copperfield
by Dickens. “This is one of the tragedies of old books.”
In an effort to preserve Texas culture for future generations, UNT history professor Joseph Kingsbury started a museum of firearms, preserved animals and items from early Texas settlers at the university back in the 1920s. When the museum closed in 1986, the archives went to Willis Library. Curator Ken Lavender began collecting scores of timeless books and materials from locked cabinets in UNT’s libraries, forming the basis of today’s Rare Books and Texana Collections. It’s an eclectic mix: World’s Fair mementos and uniforms, children’s books from Heidi to Harry Potter, the archives of the Sons of the American Revolution. Now, curator Jennifer Sheehan and a small crew of archivists and catalogers are merging the collections with Willis Library archives during renovations. When finished by midsummer 2012, visitors will be able to see many of the rare literary masterpieces and historical artifacts in Room 437. Among the most valued items historically: Queen Victoria’s Bible, works by Cicero from the 1500s, and a tiny 4,000-year-old clay tablet.
To preserve the library’s treasures, Room 437 is kept constantly under 70 degrees and less than 50 percent relative humility. Ultraviolet film covers the windows and ultraviolet filters shade the lights. Boxes and bins, customized to preserve paper, line the shelves. Everything in the room is designed to keep books, artifacts and manuscripts from wear and tear, molding and “foxing.” “That’s caused from acid in the paper that eventually damages and, I suppose can destroy, the paper,” explains Don as he carefully thumbs through the copy of David Copperfield, which has faded black from foxing. To even handle the books, visitors must wash and dry their hands. (No white gloves needed, however.) There’s no checkout for the more than 1,000 visitors and 300 researchers who come each year. Only the curator and staff can remove items.
“I hate to take these out of the office,” says Jennifer as she pushes a cart full of ancient scrolls down to a classroom for a student presentation. Her cart passes a wooden shelf with one of the library’s rarest acquisitions: a lime green book with old English letters in gold that spell out The Mite – a fitting title for a book smaller than a quarter. “This book,” boasts the preface, “is issued as a curiosity and is the smallest ever printed from type in the world.” When English publishing firm E.A. Robinson published The Mite in 1891, the book – a collection of facts – was considered the world’s smallest. Today, it is one of almost 3,000 miniatures in the Rare Book Collection – everything from works of Cicero to Mao’s Little Red Book – all less than 4 inches in height.
Across from The Mite is a metal shelf holding an 1836 decree from José Justo Corro, who became Mexico’s president while General Santa Anna was fighting the rebels in Texas. The decree mandates how Mexico would divide its pesky northern neighbor into departments “once order is re-established in the department of Texas.” The Texana Collection contains documents ranging from the 20th century history of Dr Pepper to documents signed by Sam Houston in the 19th century. Below the Mexico decree, for instance, is a Bernhardt Wall etching of the house where Sam Houston was inaugurated as the first president of the Republic of Texas. The Rare Books and Texana Collections purchased both documents with monies from the Porter-Evans Texana Collection Fund – one of many endowments allowing UNT to build its retirement home for rare books. Student fees also help.
Today, Jennifer is teaching a class to English students on the history of creating ancient manuscripts. One of the first items she holds up is a book-sized clay tablet. “That was one of the formats you would find – just these unbaked clay tablets. They would use those little triangular styluses to leave marks,” says Jennifer. As she talks, she sheds her protective guardian cloak and talks to the students as if she were sharing family heirlooms. “It’s a receipt for goats and a receipt for myrrh!” she jokes before passing the tablet around.
Students scribble notes about manufacturing writing quills, animal skin parchment and ink made from wasp larvae before Jennifer gives each of them a piece of leather and a metal marking tool. “We don’t just want ugly leather on our book. We actually want to decorate it and make it lovely!” she says, playfully. After wetting the leather with their fingers, they try to make their own engraving – with little success. Most can barely make a dent in the leather. Robert Upchurch, an English professor who also makes student presentations in the Willis archives, says the idea is to help UNT students understand the value of old books. “They have a real sense of the labor and the value that goes into the books,” he says. “These books are works of art.”
Surrounded by the literary works he dedicated his life to teaching, Don Vann reflects on how the age of digitalization is making the craft of binding paper and ink obsolete. “It’s getting less and less critical, isn’t it? Because so many things are online,” he says and sighs. He maintains that the Rare Books and Texana Collections are still important for research. After all, he says, a library with real books is “the heart” of a university.
[just the facts]
UNT’s digital library is ranked 20th in the world by Cybermetics Lab with more than 61,000 digital items and 3.8 million pages of content.
The Rare Books and Texana Collections contain an estimated 25,000 rare books and historic treasures, from books smaller than a penny to Queen Victoria’s Bible.
The Music Library holds the largest sound archive in the Southwest with nearly 1 million music/sound recordings (from cylinder to CD format), including music by band leaders Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton.
The Government Documents Collection is the archive for more than 1.5 million federal and state documents.
The basement Microforms Collection is home to 2 million microforms of historical manuscripts, presidential papers and newspapers, offering a look into the family papers of our first presidents as well as evidence from the investigation into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The University of North Texas Archives holds about 9,500 feet of historical manuscript collections and 700,000 historic photographs documenting the history of North Central Texas.
For info, visit www.library.unt.edu
. A cyber café serves cold drinks, sandwiches and baked goods. The first-floor learning center, open 24 hours a day, offers 32 computers. For parking, go to www.unt.edu/transit
Photos by Agnes O’Hanlon