Less than 200 feet away from the University Bookstore on campus sits a first edition of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” an 1861 Civil War musket and Michael Collins’ copy of the flight plan for Apollo 11.
The pieces are only fractions of what makes up Special Collections — a distinct arm of the Virginia Tech library, founded in 1970, that houses a unique set of archives.
Special Collections boasts up to 1,900 different manuscript collection sets and over 18,000 cubic feet of paper documents. Marc Brodsky, the public services and reference archivist for Special Collections, estimates the number of books in the collection to hit at right about 47,000, with more in storage.
Paper documents and books are the main resources within the collections: a serialized first edition of Charles Dickens, an 18th century bill of sale for a slave and a life-sized book of bird drawings by John James Audubon (and accompanying furniture) are among its greatest hits.
In addition to books, Special Collections is also home to a variety of non-document based artifacts, ranging from Civil War-era armament to photos of historic Blacksburg to oral histories to a car hood decorated with the names of all 32 victims of the April 16 shootings.
But these books and materials don’t just sit in a display case. In most cases, visitors don’t even have to wear gloves to manipulate collection items.
“We want people to have the experience," Brodsky said. "I think there’s a certain power to that experience, and the gloves don’t help."
The Special Collections experience includes time spent in the designated reading room, where visitors can sit and engage with materials, which cannot be checked out.
And whatever experience someone may be looking for in Special Collections, be it academic or personal, the archival staff is there to help.
“The people are really helpful,” said Megan Poppe, a senior political science major. “I asked for this one book, and they gave me a whole folder of things to look at. It’s such a helpful resource when there’s actually a person answering questions and helping you out in any way they can.”
That help doesn’t just extend to students though. Community members, alumni and visitors hoping to utilize Special Collections and the variety of resources they provide are also welcome.
“But we’d like to broaden the appeal. We’d like to let people know we’re here,” Brodsky said. “We’d like everyone to feel like they can come in and explore this place.”
And while it may seem natural for those interested in English and history to pay Special Collections a visit, the archive hosts a range of unexpected collections. Past the rare books and American Civil War history collections are some of the more specialized collections, such as American aerospace exploration, culinary history and an archive of women in architecture.
The varied subject matter of Special Collections also makes it an important resource for professors and their classes across campus. “We have architecture students (come in), we have photography students, African American studies, humanities classes. There’s a pretty wide range,” Brodsky said. “But we’d like to open this up to as many people as we can.”
Michelle Moseley-Christian, an assistant professor in the School of Visual Arts, has been bringing her Art History Methods classes to Special Collections for four years. “(Special Collections) has such a good range of objects, so it can fill a lot of the needs that that class has.”
For her class specifically, archivists pull a range of objects for students to use for discussion about research methods and the challenges in dealing with original sources.
“They get a little bit of a hands-on sense of how you might go about dealing with the different kinds of stuff they have,” Moseley-Christian said.
And that hands-on experience is exactly what Moseley-Christian believes students value most. “One of the students in my class was talking to me about how it felt to hold a book in her hands that was 200-years-old. She was really amazed by that,” she said.