MIDDLEBURY — Last fall, Weybridge Elementary School sixth-graders were able to look at and even touch maps that were drawn more than 500 years ago — something that just less than a decade ago would not have been possible.
Middlebury College’s Special Collections archive, where the students were able to engage with the century-old maps, is only just beginning to see the light of day.
Tucked away in a corner of the Davis Family Library’s basement — below the hustle and bustle of the main-floor stacks, study stations and walk-up computers — Special Collections is a repository of hidden treasures just waiting to be noticed.
While the department is not exactly as glamorous as the hidden archives portrayed in popular films like “National Treasure” and “The Name of the Rose,” the tiny research center does hold and maintain thousands of rare books, manuscripts, media and artifacts that remain equally as mysterious as the Hollywood version.
But these treasures, said Special Collections Director Andy Wentink, are just itching to be used.
“The days of archives and special collections being the holy of holies, the ivory tower, an inner sanctum and all those other terms, are dead,” he said. “We can’t allow special collections to be hidden resources any longer, they have to be made available.”
These collections, which can be traced back to the early days of the college when secret, all-male societies were still at large, are home to first editions of 19th-century novels, antique maps dating back to the 15th century, a 1489 copy of Augustine’s “City of God” and the personal manuscripts of authors like Thoreau and Hemingway, just to give a taste of the college’s previously secretive stores.
“I think it’s kind of amazing about the breadth of our holdings,” Wentink said. “I mean, again, we’re not Harvard or Yale, but it’s an impressive collection. And it’s getting more so. The word is getting out.”
Special Collections, Wentink explained, actually consists of five different collections — Rare Books and Manuscripts, The Abernethy Collection, The Flanders Ballad Collection, the Vermont Collection and the College Archives — each of which has been acquired through a series of gifts, donations and endowments.
And the collection continues to grow all the time. Just this past spring, two of writer Ernest Hemingway’s nieces donated their family archives to the college, and the Museum of the Morgan Horse asked if Wentink would take on its museum archives. In September, a relative of an alum donated a signed copy of Jack London’s “Call of the Wild,” along with a telegram and photograph that attribute London’s inspiration for the story to a man named Louis Bond, the brother of another Middlebury alum.
“All that association adds great value — Jack London is saying, ‘Without you and your dog and that trip to the Klondike, I would never have written this story,’” Wentink said.
But for Wentink — who graduated from Middlebury in 1970 — the goal of Special Collections is no longer about acquiring the most valuable or rare objects possible. Since he returned to the college as the director of Special Collections in 2002, and with the support of others in the administration like Barbara Doyle-Wilch, he has done his best to make the archives as accessible to students and faculty as possible.
“I reached out to faculty to get them to realize that the whole direction of Special Collections was changing and that it was going to become curriculum based,” Wentink said. “So rather than just collecting really cool things just to collect them, the collection development policy changed to look for what rare materials — unique, primary-source materials — would support the curriculum at Middlebury.”
Doyle-Wilch, who has retired as dean of Library and Information Services (LIS) in 2008, was one of the first to push for a change in special collections management when she was hired by the college in 2001, just before Wentink came on board.
“Special collections — in every library, not just Middlebury — was the safe-deposit box for the institution and kind of hidden away,” Doyle-Wilch said.
But this was beginning to change around the time Doyle-Wilch took over at LIS. She, along with others, was charged with designing how the new library — that was slated for completion in 2004 — would work.
“I said to Andy, ‘You know, one of the things that the Middlebury education should bring to a student is to be able to use and understand primary source materials,’” Doyle-Wilch recalled.
“When you read a book or manuscript that was written in the 1800s or 1900s, you have to understand the context, and what history was like at that time.”
Doyle-Wilch and Wentink worked together to ensure that the special collections would no longer be locked away, but instead would be celebrated and opened up for public use.
“I said, ‘Let’s take the crown jewels and make them a part of the curriculum,’” she said. “Students love it, faculty loves it — it’s like living with wonderful pieces of history and being able to use them.”
Thanks to Wentink, she said, who approaches his work from the standpoint of both researcher and teacher, the collection has transformed from something that students used to only be able to visit, look at, and then leave to being a part of their assignments.
“I think he has really made materials special to most students,” Doyle-Wilch said. “I think that nearly every student has been able to use or interact with these materials in some way or another.”
But students and faculty at the college are not the only ones benefiting from Wentink’s all-access policy. Christina Wadsworth’s sixth-grade class at Weybridge Elementary went on an excursion last fall to the archives to perform research of their own.
The class viewed a number of antique maps of the Middle East from the Eric Tunis Collection of maps mostly dating between the 15th and 17th centuries, and that were just being delivered by the donor that day. The students were learning about medieval Europe and Portuguese exploration at the time, and Wadsworth thought the visit would bolster what they had studied thus far in the unit.
“We were able to go and look at the maps and hear the donor talk about how they were created and how they functioned,” Wadsworth said. “The students thought it was incredible to be looking at something that was 400, 500, 600 years old.”
Wadsworth said that sixth-graders loved the whole experience, and she hopes to incorporate another visit into next year’s medieval studies cycle.
“They had the chance to put on white gloves and be investigators, themselves, which is an incredible opportunity,” she said. “Most students understood that. I wish we could go every month!”
Wentink said that he looks forward to several more class visits like this — bringing the community into the Special Collections archive is exactly what Wentink has in mind.
“I think of Special Collections as a laboratory,” he said. “It’s a teaching and research laboratory where people can come in and experiment with these materials, because they don’t have any other opportunities to see this stuff.”
For your own opportunity to visit the Special Collections department, check out our audio slideshow tours of some of the most rare and most interesting treasures owned by the college. Find the first installment here.
Tamara Hilmes is at firstname.lastname@example.org.