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Unburied Treasures

Exploring the Remarkable Workplaces of the Oberlin College Librarians
While it’s no secret that a college’s library system is an integral part of academic life, few individuals have a genuine appreciation of the treasures among their shelves. Those at Oberlin who do—the librarians responsible for building and maintaining the collections—admit to an occasional sense of awe over the possessions within their care.

Oberlin’s four libraries are home to more than 2.2 million items. There are the requisite books and periodicals of course, but also musical scores, sound recordings, videos, newspapers, materials on microfilm and microfiche, and unexpected objects such as paintings, sculptures, religious artifacts…even a set of slave shackles.

“Modern academic libraries put a great deal of emphasis on electronic resources,” says Director of Libraries Ray English. “Oberlin’s library provides networked access to databases, electronic journals, and an extensive electronic reserve system—all heavily used by students and faculty. But what distinguishes our library are its extraordinarily rich collections of physical materials that have been built over many decades.”

Treasures of the Special Collections

The Main Library in the Mudd Center serves as the campus’ central library; it is also the chief location for materials in the social sciences, humanities, and mathematics and computer sciences. While the library’s general collections are exceptional in many respects—including remarkable holdings of 19th-century periodicals—the real treasures lie on the top floor.

From top left: Oberlin Evangelist; first edition of Jane Eyre; slave shackle; William Morris' Kelmscott Press; "California" type case, 20th-century pop culture literature; 1860 Oberlin correspondence; Japanese artist book

A beautifully illuminated, 15th-century manuscript book of hours … a letter press book printed during the Protestant Reformation … a first edition of a Dickens’ novel issued in parts … the original draft of the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Declaration of 1833, handwritten by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison … all provide tangible links to the past which make history and culture come alive for Oberlin students.

Oberlin’s rich special collections have been developed throughout the College’s 150-year history, some from purchases, but most through the generous gifts of friends. Among our earliest acquisitions are 2,000 volumes donated by British abolitionists during a fundraising trip to England by William Dawes and John Keep in 1840, a journey that rescued the College from financial distress. Much of Oberlin’s well-known anti-slavery collection came in response to an alumni fundraising appeal in the late 19th century, when donors were offered pieces of Charles Finney’s revival tent as a premium for their contributions. Faculty, alumni, staff, and trustees have all given generously to the collections over the years.

In addition to Oberliniana, our collections are particularly strong in early printed books and manuscripts, as well as fine press books, author collections, and 20th-century propaganda pamphlets. Our Spanish drama collection is known internationally, as is our Violin Society of America/H.K. Goodkind Collec-tion: 2,500 books, journals, and ephemera about the making and playing of stringed instruments. The Congregationalist roots of the College have led to our strong holdings in religious works, particularly those with a social dimension such as holiness, temperance, and missionary service.

Religious icons, from top left: 14th-century Torah, 16th-century Persian Koran, drawing of Hindu myth, illuminated Buddhist text, Native American beaded hymnal, Mesopotamian clay tablet, Russian Illumination, page from original King James Bible of 1611.

The library purchases new materials for Special Collections whenever possible, especially items that add to our existing collections or meet specific teaching needs. We are especially proud of our newly acquired archive of Seal Press, an independent women’s press involved in second-wave feminism issues, which we obtained with the assistance of the Friends of the Library.

We encourage the use of our materials for classes and student research projects, and because many of our items are so unique, we receive a steady stream of requests for information from around the world.

As the Internet changes the way information is sought and libraries conceived, demand for access to historical material in physical collections is surging. Our web pages, online exhibits, and digital materials help showcase our collections to a worldwide audience.

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