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Brandeis Special Collections Spotlight features valuable collection of 19th-century playbooks

By Michelle Kim

Section: Arts

September 12, 2014

This month, the Special Collections Spotlight has chosen to feature a brilliant and historic collection of 19th-century playbooks, which feature comedies, dramas and tragedies. It even includes an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew.”

The Brandeis Special Collections is the main focus of the Special Collections Spotlight, which is a blog launched in 2007 by Sarah Shoemaker and showcases holdings at the Robert D. Farber University Archives and Special Collections at Brandeis University. Each month, the blog features a different collection in posts written by Brandeis undergraduate and graduate students, faculty members and non-Brandeis scholars.

The collection was personally acquired by Victor Berch, Brandeis’ first Special Collections Librarian, who donated it to Brandeis University in early 2013. “He held that position for several years. During that time, he worked hard to build collections and make them accessible to researchers,” stated Special Collections librarian Anne Woodrum. “We’re still benefiting from all that work so we’re always eager to highlight his contributions. In terms of the playbooks, this was a collection that Victor collected on his own and then decided to donate to Brandeis years after he had retired. Many of the collections in Special Collections came to us as donations, just like the playbooks, so we always try to recognize people’s generosity to Brandeis.”

Archives and Special Collections hopes that their resources will be not only interesting but also valuable to students. “Our main goal is for students to learn about the scope of the material in the collection and for them to know that it’s here for them to use. It’s just one of the many collections in our holdings that we hope students will use during their time at Brandeis. We’re hoping researchers who are interested in theater history, particularly 19th-century Boston theater history, will find this collection interesting. But we often have researchers coming in to use our collections for reasons we didn’t consider right away. In other words, you can’t always predict how material might be relevant to someone’s work because it’s not always for the obvious reasons. With that in mind, we aim to give a broad overview in our Spotlight, including information about the types and format of the material and highlight things we think are remarkable or unique,” she said.

According to the Special Collections Spotlight feature by Ryan Kacani ’15, who is an undergraduate student in History, Theater and Medieval & Renaissance Studies and an Archives & Special Collections assistant, the collection was compiled by Franklin and Oriana Hardenbergh over a hundred years ago.

Approximately half of the plays were published by William V. Spencer, who opened shop in mid-19th-century Boston. Few of the works he published were copyrighted in order to allow playwrights to “retain production privileges.” All of the plays were published under Spencer’s Boston Theater, which was a series that began in 1855 and ended in 1862; the series contained an impressive 216 titles.

The collection provides readers today with a rich theater history, writes Kacani in his post. Each play consists of notes on its production history, theaters and companies that performed it, the opening year and all of the actors and actresses who played each role.

While relatively unknown to students at Brandeis, the Special Collections department is certainly an interesting, extremely historical and useful to those who need its research resources.

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