Special Collections home to historical and pop-culture treasures
It's so cliché for college students to dread a trip to the library that even calling it a cliché is a cliché. But at MSU, one department at the Main Library turns the idea of the place as nothing more than a dusty, boring book stack on its head to showcase some of the rarest, oldest and just plain coolest books in the world.
MSU's Special Collections is home to the world's largest comic art collection, books from the mid-1500s, and a file solely dedicated to clippings on American Girl dolls. Head of Special Collections Patrick Olson sums his department up as a place to store unique items that are too valuable or fragile to circulate normally.
For Olson, picking his favorite collection is like picking a favorite child. Nevertheless, he said the one that has interested him most since he took over the department this summer is a collection of chronology materials donated by William Chase of Ann Arbor. Alongside an already thriving popular culture collection, Chase's donation, which included a large amount of almanacs, established MSU as a go-to resource for America's most historically popular books.
"Almanacs aren't much use today, but for most of modern Western culture, the almanac was second in popularity only to the Bible," Olson said. "We have some of the largest collections for some of the most influential book genres in the history of Western culture."
Walking up to the front desk of Special Collections is an experience in itself. Manning the desk could be Randall Scott, a charismatic, white-maned MSU grad who just happens to be overseer of the entire comic book collection. In the reading room, a student could peruse through a book older than the university that owns it. All of this goes on among the first floor of a library filled with studying Spartans who may not even know the department exists, let alone what it holds.
Because of the unique nature of many of the resources found in Special Collections, there are "basic security procedures" in place to protect them. They're enforced more to protect the materials from damage than out of a distrust for those that use them, Olson said.
"It's a monitored reading room, so we keep an eye on people while they use it," Olson said. "Not because we're afraid they're going to walk away with it. ... Most of us are used to sitting down and cracking a book open on the couch. We want these things to last for hundreds of years, so we have some guidelines that we try to help people understand so that the way they use them doesn't damage them."
These "basic security procedures" shouldn't intimidate students into thinking the department is off-limits to anyone or too difficult to browse. Olson wants students to use this resource. He said this semester is the department's first above the basement, a move intended to boost Special Collections' visibility.
"The barrier to access is pretty low," Olson said. "Everyone is welcome to come in and use the collection, so we encourage people to come in and do that."
In addition to daily availability, Special Collections will present regular open houses throughout the year. At these events, Ruth Ann Jones, education and outreach librarian for the department, will bring out selections of materials for the public to browse. Upcoming open house topics include the Black Power Movement on Oct. 10, as well as a MSU Homecoming afternoon session dedicated to MSU history and rare artifacts on Oct. 21.