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The Scarlet & Black

College acquires new historical collection from Salisbury House

Rare books and documents are available in the Burling Library basement. Photo by Shabana Gupta.

By Zoe Kaufmann

When students in Transatlantic Revolutions, a 100-level history class, streamed into Grinnell College’s Special Collections and Archives room on Monday, they had an opportunity that previous students didn’t: a chance to work with primary sources from the Haitian Revolution.

“Previously, we had nothing like that,” said Professor Sarah Purcell ’92, history. “Now we have this manuscript from arguably the most important person in the Haitian Revolution, General Toussaint L’Overture, and there’s his handwriting and his signature right there in Special Collections. It’s an exceptionally rare item.”

Over the summer, Grinnell College acquired a collection of almost 5,000 rare books and documents that are now available in the Special Collections and Archives, located in the basement of Burling Library. The collection includes the document signed by L’Ouverture, as well as others signed by Abraham Lincoln, John Hancock and Queen Elizabeth I. It also includes a leaf from the 1455 Gutenberg Bible, Shakespeare’s 1632 Second Folio and a page from a Quran dating from 1112.

“We did a lot of analysis. What was in the collection? How is it going to impact students here? How would it complement the collections we already had? And then we decided it was a really good match for Grinnell,” said Mark Christel, Samuel R. and Marie-Louise Rosenthal Librarian.

The 2,500 books and 2,000 documents from the new collection are now housed in a special climate controlled vault. The College plans to hire a short-term project archivist to catalogue the new materials, many of which are the only ones of their kind, and digitize some to increase access to the documents outside of Grinnell.

The collection was previously held in the Salisbury House in Des Moines, Iowa, a historic home built by cosmetics magnate Carl Weeks. Weeks and his wife, Edith, collected thousands of rare books, antiques and art, according to the University of Iowa’s Biographical Dictionary of Iowa, many of which remain in the House. In fact, the new acquisition includes correspondence between Carl Weeks and writers such as D.H. Lawrence and Ernest Hemingway.

The Salisbury Foundation first approached the College a year ago, and the sale was finalized in August. They wanted to keep the documents together and make sure it was maintained properly, as well as made more available to researchers than it had been in Des Moines.

“The book collection was always something that was a little underutilized at their home, the historic house. Researchers didn’t really use it very intensely. It became just sort of a stop on the tour,” Christel said. “The Salisbury staff and board recognized that researchers should really have better access to these and they were looking for a place that would really curate the collection, do preservation focused work on it. And so Grinnell seemed like a good match.”

There is some overlap between the new collection and the College’s previous holdings: the purchase nearly doubled the College’s number of books printed from 1450 to 1500. The new acquisition thus allows students to compare numerous examples from the same period.

It also adds new items that weren’t previously available. For example, it includes three illuminated Books of Hours from the 14th and 15th centuries; Grinnell previously had none.

“It’ll take us years and years to even discover all the uses, so there are probably a lot of uses we can’t even envision right now today. It will both enhance what our our history class students can do, and also create new opportunities. It’s also possible that we could have [Mentored Advanced Projects] and more intensive student research on some of the materials,” Purcell said. “There are huge numbers of opportunities. I also think other historical researchers may come to campus to look at this material, so it’ll be a great chance for students to interact with those folks as well.”

The library plans to hold an open house soon for the public to view notable items in the new collection. While the items haven’t been catalogued yet, students can still peruse them upon request.

“We love to run into the vault and pull out our favorite books or documents,” Special Collections Librarian and Archivist Chris Jones said. “Now, we’ve just added 5,000 new objects that we get to pull from whenever somebody says, ‘Show me something cool,’ which just makes our jobs that much more exciting.”

The excitement goes both ways; working with those new sources was a good introduction to Grinnell’s Special Collections and Archives for some first-year students in Purcell’s course.

“I’m really excited to go back because it was such a cool place,” Melena Johnson ’23 said. “It was really cozy and really inviting to go down there and look through all their stuff.”

Rare books and documents are available in the Burling Library basement. Photo by Shabana Gupta.
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