Portrait by John Clow, Staff Photographer
The Special Collections Department on the third floor of Davidson Library at the University of California, Santa Barbara hosts a variety of rare, valuable, and unique documents, many of which can only be found there. The Special Collections first opened with the Wyles Collection in 1938, back when the university was still the Teacher’s College. William Wyles was a businessman and an avid collector of Civil War documents and artifacts who donated his “Lincoln Library” to the university, in part because his collections were growing so rapidly he was running out of space to store it. Wyles continued to donate throughout his life, and upon his death, he left a large endowment to ensure the collections’ future growth.
There are almost 4,000 manuscript collections in the library, which are collections of unique documents such as the papers of a writer or the records of a local organization. For example, the Lobero Theatre’s archival collection is located within the Special Collections, and researchers can come in and find out about performances from years earlier.
The collections contain over 250,000 volumes, 16,000 linear feet of manuscripts, 100,000 photographs and more than 200,000 early sound recordings. Some of the major collections and collecting areas include The American Religions Collection, The California Ethnic and Multicultural Archives, The Darwin/Evolution Collection, and The Rare Book Collection. Many of these collections, especially the old, unique volumes, are stored in a locked cold storage vault for optimal safe-keeping.
David Seubert, the acting head of Special Collections, took some time out of his grant-writing to talk to us about some of the rare and unique books. He drew a distinction between “rare” and “unique,” saying that the Collections contain both. The rare books include a first-edition copy—one of only 1,250—of “The Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin, located in the Darwin/Evolution Collection. Unique documents are ones that are found in the Collections and nowhere else. These include a large collection of the author Charles Bukowski’s original hand-edited typescripts, illuminated manuscripts written on vellum, and more.
Seubert was kind enough to take us through the stacks and into the cold storage vault to show us some of the collections firsthand. Many documents in the cold storage are collections of Artists’ Books—books that are works of art themselves, delicate, hand-made, and often one-of-a-kind. With the library’s expansion, there will be an entire building dedicated to keeping these Artists’ Books, historical documents, and the rest of the collections safe in cold storage.
“That’s kind of the principle of special collections,” says Seubert. “We have all of the materials owned by the university that are valuable, unique, or very rare that we need to protect.”
Throughout the year, the Special Collections puts documents on exhibit in the front of the department. The current exhibit is “Conjuring India: British Views of the Subcontinent, 1780-1870.” It features illustrations from British books representing colonized South Asia from the 18th and 19th Centuries. Past exhibitions included “Who Freed The Slaves? Emancipation as a Social Movement” and “Stars of the Opera Stage: ‘Golden Age’ Images From The William R. Moran Collection.”
Between the Artists’ Books, the historical documents, the unique typescripts, and more, the Special Collections is a portal to knowledge that cannot be found anywhere else. Though nothing is in circulation, the Special Collections can be visited by all staff, students, and the general public.
Photo Courtesy of UC Santa Barbara Library