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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Special Collections student workers “Break Open the Vault”

On the evening of May 2, student-selected treasures from the Burling Library Special Collections archive were available to view. Photo by Andrew Tucker.

As finals week looms and Burling Library becomes steadily busier, students working for Special Collections aimed to attract visitors to the building’s basement for the seventh annual “Break Open the Vault” event on Thursday, May 2.

The event gave library visitors a chance to view a selection of literature and artifacts curated by student archivist assistants Erik Henderson ’19, Temitayo Wolff ’19 and Elaine Thut ’20. Each artifact was accompanied by a short description of the item and its significance, inviting students and other visitors to learn from the item themselves.

“In the special collections, we keep all the rare and special books that the library has, so all the special assets are locked up in the vault because lots of them are pretty expensive. Basically, it’s just preserving older works that students can reference in their papers, do research [with], know the history of the College, all these really cool things that people don’t know about . . . it’s a really cool place,” Thut said.

Some of the historical artifacts featured at the event included an early manuscript of “Candide” by Voltaire, a peace treaty on witches written in the 1600s and the book “Strong-Minded Woman,” written by Grinnell alum Louise Noun, class of 1929. The oldest book in Special Collections is a German Bible written in the 15th century.

“When you actually look at a primary source of something from that era, it changes the way you view things and it changes your appreciation for material and artifacts . . . when I saw [that Bible] I was like, wow, this has been preserved for almost 400 plus years . . . the amount of hands that have touched that and all the power that is in these books that many people have never even heard of,” Henderson said.

“Break Open the Vault” also featured pieces of Grinnell College’s history, such as a scrapbook featuring photos of campus life in the 1940s and other student publications. Such artifacts serve as physical examples of the institutional memory of the College spanning from its beginnings to present day.

Besides “Break Open the Vault,” student archivists curate other displays and projects which can be viewed in the basement of Burling Library.

Behind the scenes, students work with archivists Allison Haack and Chris Jones, to not only preserve the past, but also the present. Their duties include identifying people in photos for the upcoming annual College reunion, as well as adding current posters around campus to an archive of events that have taken place at the College.

Henderson noted that Special Collections is becoming under-utilized as online research methods grow more prevalent. However, while there are a wealth of resources online, Special Collections offers students the rare chance to physically view artifacts that have historical significance. Thut and Henderson both encourage students to use the space more, not only for academic projects but also as a way to explore the history of their school.

“Look at something old . . . Even though we’re so far and distant from the past, you can still learn something from the past because literally, if you don’t know where you came from, you don’t know where you’re going . . . Check out the archives and see where you came from,” said Henderson.

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