Clean Hands, Pure Heart: A Look Inside USC's Special Collections
A few years ago, Elizabeth Sudduth, director of USC’s Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, was showing a medieval missal to a pair of graduate students when one of them leaned closer and asked, “What kind of paper is that?”
It’s the sort of question Sudduth gets all the time. It’s also proof positive of the need to collect, preserve and make accessible the artifacts of our past, particularly on a university campus.
“I said, ‘It’s not paper, it’s vellum,’ and invited them to sniff the pages,” says Sudduth. “Vellum has a very particular smell. Looking at the object, touching the object, you could tell it was different, but actually smelling it, in this case, added another dimension.”
For all the access made possible by digitization — and make no mistake, all of USC’s Special Collections use the technology to expand public access — nothing replaces the real McCoy.
“A digital reproduction can be very good, but you lose other aspects of the experience, the feel of the texture and weight of the page.” says Sudduth. “That’s why a lot of researchers who access our digital collections still make a visit. The surrogate can give you a nearly perfect visual experience but it’s just not the same as working with the item.”
While the Irvin Department of Rare Books houses priceless antiquarian books along with the personal effects of renowned authors, it is a library first, and committed to enhancing the teaching and research missions of the university.
“Our motto for many years has been, ‘If you have clean hands and a pure heart, you can register to use our materials,’” says Sudduth. “It doesn’t matter if you’re ten years old, if you live in another state or if you’re doing serious research. We don’t turn people away.”
For Henry Fulmer, director of the South Caroliniana Library, the real measure of his library’s value is the reach of its spirit.
“What we do goes far beyond a love affair with the materials themselves,” says Fulmer. “It extends to all aspects of historic preservation — historic buildings, historic sites, archeology, anthropology. There’s this kindred spirit of wanting to preserve some vestige of the past, and understanding that that’s what we truly learn from.”
Built in 1840 as the library for the South Carolina College, South Caroliniana is now home to published and unpublished print materials, oral histories and visual materials pertaining to the history of the Palmetto State. Since the 1990s, it has also housed the university archives.
“Today there are collections at McKissick, at Hollings, all over campus, but I like to think that the university’s first efforts at collecting started in this building,” says Fulmer, acknowledging that many items predate its construction.
The library’s earliest manuscript, for example, dates from the late 17th century. More “recent” items include Civil War correspondence, newspapers stored on microfilm, paper paraphernalia from the legendary Big Thursday football matchups and the official records of past university presidents — all of it available to the public.
“We want people to come here and hopefully enrich their academic or personal lives,” says university archivist Elizabeth West. “There are those who collect and squirrel things away, and no one ever sees them. We want people to experience the things we have.”
POLITICAL PAPER CHASE
At the South Carolina Political Collections, a 1990s spinoff of South Caroliniana, access can be limited due to the nature of the archive itself, which contains the papers of Palmetto State governors, senators and congressman, including many active political figures who would rather not have their papers used for opposition research.
“Many of our donors are still in office, so they request records services as part of the agreement. A lot of our collections remain closed for that same reason,” says SCPC director Herb Hartsook.
Still, Hartsook delights in providing a wealth of other material, including speeches, op-eds, even constituent mail, all of which can be searched online once a collection has been opened to the public, typically after an official has stepped down from public life.
“We are committed to folder-level access,” Hartsook says. “And our collections tend to be very large and complex, with electronic material and audio visual material in addition to print.”
Hartsook also procures ephemera to use in exhibits. Think Congressman Butler Derrick’s bowtie and tortoise shell glasses, a pair of cowboy boots given to Dick Riley at a governor’s convention in Texas, a cache of buttons, pins and other swag from the 1964 campaign of presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.
Collections come from both sides of the aisle, with the papers of prominent Democrats Fritz Hollings and William Jennings Bryan Dorn residing alongside those of Republicans Lindsey Graham, Joe Wilson and Jim Edwards.
“I’m passionate about what we do, but what we do is nonpartisan,” Hartsook explains. “I had one donor who was very excited about how the Republicans were doing at that time, and he said to me, ‘You know, I’m talking to you like you’re a fellow Republican, but I don’t really know what your political leanings are.’ I said, ‘You’re right. You shouldn’t. It shouldn’t matter.’ Most of my Republican donors assume I’m Republican. Most of my Democratic donors assume I’m a Democrat.”
This article previously appeared in the February 2015 issue of USC TIMES.