While students are busy focusing on homework assignments or the next party, there are lectures, concerts and resources all over campus that tend to be ignored.
One of these resources is the University’s Special Collections, located on the sixth floor of Milner Library. Run by librarians Maureen Brunsdale and Mark Schmitt, Special Collections is home to four of Milner’s most interesting collections: the rare and fine book collection, the Lincoln collection, the circus collection and a collection of children’s literature. Each collection includes books, original manuscripts, letters and artifacts, such as Lois Lenski’s toy and doll collection and the wedding shoes of Lavinia Warren, wife of famed circus performer Charles “Tom Thumb” Stratton.
Brunsdale and Schmitt spoke about their experience working with Special Collections.
How did the special collections unit get started?
Brunsdale: It all began in the early 1950s, with the first professionally trained librarian to come to this university, Eleanor Weir Welch. She started Special Collections with a Rare and Fine book collection and the children’s literature collection. The circus collection came in 1955, and then in 1974, after she left, is when the Lincoln collection came.
Would you give us an overview of what students can find in each collection?
Brunsdale: The rare and fine book collection has roughly 20,000 volumes and covers all subject areas. Everything from general literature to bibliographies is covered. Our oldest book in that collection is dated from 1476. It’s a travelogue from Florence, Italy, and it’s in pretty rough condition, but it’s also really old. There’s a copy of Lady Mary Wroth’s “The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania,” which is the first work of fiction written by a woman in English. It’s really amazing that we have that sort of thing in our collection. But like I said, it covers all subject areas, and those are just a few examples.
Schmitt: The rare and fine book collection is really a library within a library.
Brunsdale: That’s a great way to look at it. We also have our Abraham Lincoln collection, which is our only endowed collection, meaning that it came with a pot of money so that we can keep growing it. That collection was set up and intended to inform the typical student as to who Abraham Lincoln was. Not just the guy who got us through the Civil War or got shot in office, but about his religious beliefs and his children and his wife. In the Lincoln collection, we have a couple of legal briefs, one written entirely in his hand, so that’s neat to hold and think, “Wow. He held this.”
Schmitt: The “jewels” of the children’s literature collection are the items that we have from Lois Lenski, who was a children’s author and illustrator, very prolific. She wrote about 100 books from the 1920s to the 60s. Some of the famous titles are “Strawberry Girl,” “Houseboat Girl” and “San Francisco Boy.” What makes her unique is that she did so much research on her books. When writing “Houseboat Girl,” for example, she found a real houseboat girl and corresponded with her and got a sense of her life and corresponded that to a book that might be interesting for a child to read.
Then of course is the circus collection, and that was started by Eleanor Weir Welch in about 1955, and the reason being is that first of all, Bloomington was a circus hub for aerialists. People were coming from all over the place, and by the 1930s, Bloomington really was known as the trapeze capital of the world. The circus collection was started by Eleanor Weir Welch to commemorate that history.
Why is it that the Lincoln collection is the only collection that has been endowed?
Brunsdale: The endowment for the Lincoln collection came about by a man named Harold K. Sage, who was a Bloomington boy who grew up and worked on a plantation in the south. In the wintertime he was bored and came back home and the old Bloomington Public Library had a Lincoln room. He became enamored and wanted to collect all the books in the room, and that passion grew, as hobbies and passions do. Before he passed away he approached Milner and said, “I would love to give to you my collection and give you some money to keep growing it.” Of course we accepted and were very excited by his donation.
What is your favorite aspect of working in Special Collections?
Brunsdale: It depends on my day and depends on my mood. It’s like choosing your favorite child. The best thing about this job is that every day I learn something new. I truly believe that I have the best job on campus. Every day I get to learn not only something new, but how it fits into the greater scheme of human knowledge.
Schmitt: We are lucky enough to have the possibility to have a new favorite thing to obsess about every day and then have classes come in and get a different take on those things. Not everyone is lucky enough to have an opportunity to interact with such amazing things all the time. Every day coming in is such a surprise.