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Library contains many historical treasures

Library contains many historical treasures

By Katarina Weessies

Section: Features

March 6, 2015

The impressive contents of the Brandeis library remain unknown to most students. We see the library as a quiet place to work, socialize and occasionally pick up a few books for an assignment. We are largely unaware that we have access to fascinating documents such as an original work by Thomas Aquinas, “Buffalo Bill” dime novels from the 1910s and even a Shakespearean First Folio, printed shortly after Shakespeare’s death.

The Brandeis Special Collections Blog describes the collections as “the gems of the Brandeis library. The rare book collection includes incunabula; books published in the 16th-18th centuries on such subjects as history, English and American literature, philosophy and Judaica; first and limited editions; and fine press publications.” One look through the collections reveals that it really does contain the “gems” mentioned in the blog. It’s difficult to imagine looking at a physical copy of an original Shakespearean folio or flipping through a playbook over 150 years old.

One reason the Brandeis community is so unaware of the Archives and Special Collections is obvious: If everyone demanded access to such old and fragile documents, their quality would quickly deteriorate, regardless of the most careful conservation efforts. It is the responsibility of the school to make sure a careless student doesn’t accidentally crumble a valuable document. Access to our special collections must be somewhat limited in order to preserve their condition.

Another more unfortunate reason for the lack of knowledge about the collections is apathy. Colleges and universities can be so oversaturated with academic information that it’s difficult to get students to focus on a single resource. This is a good problem: There is no such thing as too much knowledge or too many resources. The world of the modern college student is filled to the brim with information. Sometimes, it is difficult for students to make time for the rare and fragile resources found in the Archives and Special Collections. But the school’s resources, no matter how impressive, are meaningless if students aren’t aware of them. The best way to solve the problem of apathy regarding the collections is to promote its most interesting features, which is what I hope to do with the remainder of this article.

One artifact that encapsulates Brandeis’ history and ideology is a collection of letters by Leo Frank to his wife. Frank was the defendant in a notorious trial known for its blatant anti-Semitism and controversial ruling. He was charged with the murder of a young girl who worked at a pencil factory for which he was the superintendent. He was convicted based on circumstantial evidence and sentenced to death. His trial is now seen as wildly unfair. At the time, protesters gathered outside the courthouse chanting “Hang the Jew!” While his death sentence was eventually traded for life in prison and his conviction revoked after his death, his conviction and eventual murder have become a symbol of the American Jewish community’s struggle. His story even inspired the Tony award-winning musical “Parade.” Brandeis’ collection includes heart-breaking letters between the imprisoned Frank and his wife, legal documents and texts by Governor Slaton regarding the trial.

The Archives and Special Collections Department also has “an exceptionally rare unpublished handwritten manuscript by Sir Isaac Newton,” which the department’s blog describes as being “composed in a bold and distinctive (often nearly illegible) calligraphic script.” The illegibly written manuscript is a justification of Queen Elizabeth’s execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. Newton often harkens to the power of God’s judgment and compares the fatal decisions of royals to those of God. Some scholars believe that the manuscript was actually written as a justification of the deposition of royals that Newton saw as unchristian, specifically King James II. This extremely rare text has been the subject of debate and displays an interesting perspective on Newton’s lesser-known opinions on religion and monarchy.

The contents of the Brandeis Archives and Special Collections are impressive, but they remain largely undiscovered by Brandeis students. Their unknown nature is part of what makes them such a great resource. Many of the fascinating documents have yet to be studied extensively, and are completely mysterious to the academic community as a whole. They wait patiently on the second floor of the Goldfarb Library to be studied by the next intelligent, resourceful Brandeis researcher.

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