Lois Black turns a page of the 17th or 18th century French book, its pages heavy because of the higher cotton content than is used today.
The book was used as a log for an ironworker’s sales, and the different handwritings are the customers’ descriptions of what they purchased, she explains.
Turning the book over, she points out the vellum spine. It is smooth, glossy. A cursory glance would reveal nothing much about the spine, but upon further inspection it has adjudicated writing on it, and appears much older than the rest of the book.
“In that time, people cut up medieval books to use the material for book spines,” she explains.
“Personally, I would rather see the medieval book.”
This book is just one of the thousands of items housed in Lehigh’s Special Collections. The items range from original documents of world renowned scholars—like early manuscripts of Darwin’s “Origin of Species” or one of the original folios of Shakespeare’s work—to Lehigh memorabilia, like a silver spoon that Asa Packer used or a receipt detailing the $10,000 purchase of Christmas Hall, Lehigh’s first building.
Students may be most familiar with the special collections through the seasonal displays on the first floor and outside Lucy’s Café in Linderman Library. The current collection is entitled “Lehigh Coal and Navigation, “but the collection extends far beyond that.
The oldest item in the collection is a clay tablet from Greece with cuneiform writing.
Photographs, first-edition books, postcards from Lehigh students through the ages and artifacts are all cataloged and stored in facilities in Linderman Library, Fairchild-Martindale Library and Mountaintop campus.
Ilhan Citak is the archives and special collections librarian whose main focus is Lehigh history.
He said there over 16,000 photos of the university, office records and even corn cob pipes that students once owned in the collection.
“Sentimental value is one of the most important aspects of our lives,” Citak said. “University or institutional memories are similar to those of your grandmother’s memories or belongings. Anything related to Lehigh becomes our interest and we really rely on students, alumni, and friends of Lehigh for gifts to the collection. It becomes diverse and enriched that way.”
Items are sometimes loaned to other universities or museums that have temporary exhibitions. Recently, material was loaned to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia for an exhibition.
Staff members in the department are often contacted by professors at Lehigh or other universities for help finding documents.
Ali Yeager, ’15, a work-study student in the office, said that a graduate student doing research recently requested original documents from Mary Todd Lincoln that the university owned. It was a brochure sent from Lincoln to the then-governor of Pennsylvania, inviting him to a play—coincidentally, the play where Lincoln was shot.
“(The job originally) drew me because it was very obscure,” Yeager said. “I would not think to do this kind of thing. There are really interesting and rare things (in special collections).”
Professors sometimes bring their classes to the special collections to supplement class material. Ricardo Viera, a professor of art, recently brought his Museum Studies class to the office. Jenna Lay, a professor of English, teaches a Milton seminar and often brings her classes in.
Astronomy and astrophysics classes also used the holdings of Copernicus and Galileo.
The collection comes from alumni, faculty, students and friends of the university that donate to the collection. Black explained that the office encourages students to preserve their Lehigh memorabilia, as one day it would make for a good addition to the collection.
For the older and more historic works, many of them were purchased in the early years of the library using funds from Asa Packer.
“Asa Packer’s bequest (supplied the funds) and the librarians bought very well and wisely,” she said. “(The early years were when) we acquired most of the important books, including the Audubon.”
Other sources of material come from local companies and institutions, like Bethlehem Steel and the Bach Choir.
Black said that Special Collections received a gift from Bethlehem steel of about 12,000 glass slides with the annual reports from the company that cover the entire 20th century. They are currently working on cataloging and digitizing the acquisition.
In addition to digitizing the collection so that it can be more easily accessed and easier to search through, the department has also expanded its social media to further engage the Lehigh and outer community.
Abby McBride, ’17, is a work-study student in the department and manages its Tumblr account, which was created in November.
“There is an element of building reputation and showing exhibits off (through the Tumblr),” McBride said. “We started to focus on themes. The first we did was banned books. That was a chance to say that we have a first edition of Hemingway.
“Tumblr works for outreach and educating the community…it is such a visual platform (so it works for the department). We are not going to write short tweets about what we have.”
Some of the Tumblr posts are about university holdings that relate to current events, and others showcase Lehigh memorabilia. During the 150th Lehigh-Lafayette football game in November, the Tumblr featured images of programs of games past.
“We don’t only collect university memory, but make sure we consider longevity,” Citak said. “We have to make sure material is available years later. That when we are ready for the 250th anniversary (of Lehigh-Lafayette), we need to make sure we will have enough to tell the story.”