The following is a guest post by student assistant Blaise Denton.
Here in the Florida State University Special Collections we have a very special volume, Jorge Borges “The Library of Babel.” The standalone volume in our possession is illustrated by Erik Desmazieres. The Book details life in the great and infinite Library of Babel. It is never ending, universal, broken up into hexagonal rooms and filled with an uncountable number of books. Filling each book are letters, clumped randomly to spell out nonsense. Every so often people find a book with words, real words that spell out ideas and thoughts. Because the library is infinite, there must be one book somewhere in the collection that details the past and future. There must be a book that catalogues the rest of the books. There must also be an infinite number of false narratives, false leads, and even more books that are unreadable.
Special Collection isn’t infinite. Most of the books in the collection are carefully catalogued and lodged in a place where we can find them. We know what almost all of them say. But the task of the librarian is the same, whether it is in the Library of Babel or here in Special Collections. We live in a big world, rather full of books, and more full of things. In Special Collections we find those books that “matter”, a rather subjective verb, and we keep them here, safe. They deteriorate; they get lost. We bundle them up safe with boxes and paper wrapping; we hunt them down and bring them back to their preordained place. The librarian’s tasks, in fiction and in life, are to bring order to chaos and to decide what matters.
Many of the books in Special Collections are in languages we can’t read. Many of them are so small you need a magnifying glass to examine them, some are so big it takes two people to open them. Some are serious tomes on theology and philosophy and some are tiny children’s books. Some of them are pornographic. But they all have two things in common: they are kept in place by a complex cataloging system, and they are meaningful.
In “The Library of Babel” when someone finds a book with meaning, that book becomes incredibly valuable. People travel from all over the universe, that is to say the library, to look at it. Whether it is fiction, poetry, prophesy or biography the book becomes something invaluable. It has meaning, it proves that there is truth.
Special Collections is rather like that, if a bit less grand. People choose things as
meaningful enough to write about or otherwise document. Someone has combed through all the books to buy, all the books that have been donated, and selected these. These are the most valuable, the rarest, the oddest books that FSU libraries has. Come look at a book inscribed by a medieval monk. An Akkadian trader. A 60’s beat poet. Come look at “The Library of Babel” by Borges. There are books from every age and perspective here. There are so many books you could never read them all. Try reading a few, very different books and see if you, like the fictional librarian, find some meaning in order.
In our final farewell post to our graduating student assistants, view the previous post by Mary Kate here, Blaise Denton and Shelby Yant reflect on their experience in Special Collections. Both work exclusively in Special Collections with our rare books, manuscripts, historical artifacts, Napoleon, Shaw and various other collections. I should also add that both have found time, between graduate school, to stay with us for part of the summer. And we are happy to have them for a bit longer.
“My name is Blaise Denton and I have been working here for a little under two years. I had walked into Special Collections before, but been scared off by an unfriendly and perhaps confused receptionist. When I came back for my interview, Lisa Girard was so friendly and painted such a glowing picture of Special Collections, I was excited to work here. My first week I went through the Special Collections Vault, pulling out and examining the rarest and most valuable books in the collection. It was incredible. There were ancient pirate biographies, 4,500 year old stone sale receipts and [Salvador] Dali paintings. It was like being in a museum, except you can touch the art and you’re getting paid. The artists’ books are definitely my favorite collections. All the books that fit under N7433 are designed less to be read but more as pieces of art. They’re beautifully made and bizarrely interesting.
After graduation I am hoping to go to graduate school here at FSU, for Urban Planning and Public Administration. I am going to be very sad to leave Special Collections. This is by far the best job I’ve ever had. If there were one thing I wish more people knew about Special Collections it would be that we want you to come in and we are happy when you get to look at something unique.”
“Prior to working at FSU’s Archives and Special Collections, I was a little apprehensive about applying for the job. While I loved all literature, I knew very little about what occurred “behind the scenes” of a library and did not feel completely qualified to fill the position. As I began my work, throughout the following months, I immediately felt at ease. Although I did not know the ins and outs of Library Science my supervisor Lisa Girard, as well as other staff, showed me all that I needed to know. I felt welcomed, supported and appreciated and to this day I feel that is what facilitated my growth of knowledge and passion in this field.
I generally love the items that are located in the vault. My favorite book however is volume one of A General History of the Pyrates from 1724. On my mother’s side of the family, one of our ancestors is Bartholomew Roberts- a notorious pirate. It was incredible getting to read all of the family stories about him in this book! I would say that my favorite project is any sort of reshelving or pulling a work for a patron. It is like a scavenger hunt replacing an item or looking for the call number! I tend to make a game out of anything.
Working in Special Collections helped me to develop a deeper appreciation for the text I read as an English Literature major. The ability to know firsthand about how books were created during the Renaissance, for example, is simply priceless. After graduation, I plan on staying in Tallahassee and continuing to work in Special Collections until the end of July. Then, I intend on moving to Jacksonville to attend the University of North Florida for my MA in English. Eventually I hope to teach high school English, Theatre, and German.
I think that the most important thing that I would want people unfamiliar with Archives and Special Collections to know is simply all that we have to offer and how easily accessible everything is. I tell people all the time about the amazing glimpses into history that I get to hold (with utmost caution, of course!) in my hands, and that the same materials are available to them as well! People think that we only have very old and specific books, but our variety spans centuries and it is always growing!”
The division of Special Collections and Archives, of Florida State University, is privileged to have the assistance of our undergraduate student assistants in addition to our graduate assistants. In coordination with our Manager of Special Collections, Lisa Girard, our undergraduate assistants may also work between Heritage Protocol and University Archives (HPUA) and the Claude Pepper Library. Our undergraduate student assistants comprise a variety of different majors, have spent many semesters in our division and are imperative to our daily operations. The first of two posts, that follow, serve as our means of honoring them as well as reflecting on their time spent here as they graduate and become alumni of FSU.
“My name is Mary Kate Downing and I’ve been an student assistant in Special Collections and Archives for the past two semesters. I’m graduating this semester, so I was thrilled to learn that I’d have the chance to write a part of a guest blog post as a way to reflect on the fantastic time I’ve had here.
I first learned about Special Collections and Archives in spring 2015 from one of my professors, Dr. Davis Houck of the School of Communication. I was in Dr. Houck’s speech class and wanted to give an informative speech on the history of FSU’s Westcott Building and Fountain. He encouraged me to pay Special Collections a visit. I had not heard of the division before, but I wanted to do some research for my speech, so I took the plunge and walked through the fancy wooden door. Everyone I met from the division was friendly and helpful and I was able to find more than enough information for my speech. The rest of that spring semester was extremely busy, so I didn’t think too much about Special Collections again until the end of the summer when I was applying for jobs for the fall. I was looking for a part-time library job because I already knew that I wanted to be a librarian, but I had only previously worked at public libraries. With my fingers crossed, I filled out the application to work at Strozier Library checking off that I was interested in almost every division, including Special Collections. I was invited to interview for positions in three different divisions, but I was the most excited about my Special Collections interview. As you can imagine, then, I was elated to eventually be offered a position in the division!
When I started working at Special Collections and Archives, I realized that the division
didn’t only have materials related to FSU history. I learned about the huge variety of manuscripts, rare books, maps, sound recordings, ephemera, and more that call Special Collections home. I was impressed. I couldn’t believe that all of those materials were readily available for people to look at. I was so excited to be able to interact with items, ranging from a Napoleonic death mask to letters written by Dr. Seuss, on a daily basis. During my two semesters here, I’ve had the opportunity to work on a variety of different projects in three divisions of Special Collections and Archives – general Special Collections, Heritage Protocol and University Archives (HPUA), and the Claude Pepper Library.
Some of my favorite projects in general Special Collections have included different inventories, like the Dirac book cart inventory, where we went through carts of books and journals that belonged to late Nobel laureate and FSU professor Paul A.M. Dirac. As well as the vault inventory, where I made sure all the especially valuable materials in Special Collections were accounted for.
In HPUA, my main project was creating a comprehensive timeline of FSU history using primary source documents. In searching for primary sources, I came across a lot of awesome FSU-related materials, like the enormous Victoria J. Lewis scrapbook and the 1968 edition of the FSU yearbook Tally-Ho.
At the Claude Pepper Library, some of my favorite projects have included the CDA to WAV conversion, where we worked to convert CD recordings of late Florida Senator Claude Pepper to digital files, and the ongoing inventory, where I went through almost a hundred boxes of Senator Pepper’s correspondence and mementos from 1936 to 1951. I also enjoyed working with the collection of phonodiscs, which contain the original recordings of many of Senator Pepper’s speeches and interviews, and a program from the 1944 Democratic National Convention that was in one of Senator Pepper’s correspondence folders.
After graduation, I will be earning a master’s degree in Library and Information Science from the University of South Florida and working part-time in the Youth Services Department at a public library in the Tampa area. I’ll miss FSU’s Special Collections and Archives, but I plan to look for another special collections or archives position in the near future. If I could tell people who are unfamiliar with Special Collections and Archives one thing about the division, it would be to come check it out! Don’t be intimidated by the door that separates the Special Collections Reading Room from the rest of Strozier Library. There’s so much you can learn, and the librarians and archivists are some of the coolest people on campus.”