A Publication of WTVP

The Virginius H. Chase Special Collections Center in the Cullom-Davis Library at Bradley University houses rare books, manuscripts, archival materials and other resources that require special management. Charles J. Frey is the Special Collections librarian who helped the program get its start in 1979 and has remained there since its inception. What follows are excerpts from a conversation with Mr. Frey.

The term “Special Collections” is kind of hazy—it can mean almost anything. In general, it means a program that deals with material that can’t circulate and is too valuable or fragile for unsupervised use. It could mean a program that has a strong museum component, or one that only dealt, say, in maps. In some places, it could turn out to be a rare book operation.

ISU, for example, has a great collection of circus memorabilia; apparently, a lot of circus performers used to spend their winters in Bloomington. Western Illinois University has significant collections about the Mormons and the French utopian Icarians, who came after them in the 19th century, as well as a collection about the 20th century actor/singer Burl Ives. Knox College has a very nice collection of emigrant’s guides and maps, which are invaluable for studying the early settlement of the Midwest. Really large schools like the University of Illinois often have separate operations for rare books, maps, local history, etc., while medium-sized and smaller schools may have several areas combined in one unit.

A Wide Range of Media
At Bradley, we have manuscripts and letters; maps and atlases; postcards; printed books; trade catalogues; and ephemera—things like broadsides, campaign ribbons, advertising cards and the like. We also have a number of vertical files—with everything from newspaper clippings to advertisements.

We also have a lot of photographs in various formats—slides, prints and negatives, daguerreotypes, tintypes, glass plate negatives, and a fair number of nitrate negatives that must be kept refrigerated. Nitrate negatives are a problem because they are capable of spontaneous combustion when the temperature is over 80 degrees. In many areas, these negatives are classified not only as flammable, but explosive. When you want to dispose of nitrate negatives, you have to call the fire department to take them to an industrial incinerator. One of our largest groups of nitrate negatives was first discovered in the attic of an historic house on Moss Avenue. The owners were extremely lucky that the whole place didn’t go up in flames on a hot summer day.

In addition to flat paper, we have some artifacts—a shovel from the 1897 groundbreaking of Bradley Hall, for instance. We also have some costumes, such as the academic regalia worn by an early Bradley president, and we are getting some articles of clothing that belonged to Mrs. Bradley.

The Closed Stack
Special Collections operates as a closed-stack system; the general public cannot go directly to where the material is stored—a staff member must bring it out. This system is common to many Special Collections Centers for several reasons.
Much of our material is not in book format; it’s very densely stored and a lot is not cataloged. There is a system of organization, but much depends on knowledge of the collection that the average user would not have. Someone without that knowledge would probably not find what he was looking for and might either not put material back, in which case we’d have a hard time figuring out where it came from, or put it back in the wrong place. When that happens, something may not be found for years. A further danger is that many of our materials are fragile and can be damaged if handled by untrained hands.

Not only is our system of organization difficult for most people to follow, it does not always draw material on the same subject together in one place. Parts of our collection are on deposit; since they are not owned by the university, they must be kept separate and not interfiled with other materials. Answering one question, therefore, may require searching several different groups of material. Knowing which groups to search depends on the memory of the staff.

A closed stack system also forces visitors to define their interests. I can’t tell you the number of times that people come in the door and ask, “What do you have on the history of Peoria?” That’s a pretty hard question for us to answer, and it would be even harder for them if they were just pulling things off the shelf at random. So a lot of our time is spent just talking to people and trying to get them to boil their thoughts down to what they really want. The broader the question, the less chance we have of answering it.

» On Paper Preservation & Restoration
One thing that’s very unusual for a program of this size is our conservation program; typically, you have to go to a considerably bigger institution to find that. While our bookbinder has retired—and it’s pretty hard to find somebody with those qualifications to replace him—we do have a conservator, and we’ve moved in the direction of a lot of flat-paper conservation and restoration. We’re capable of doing some very sophisticated work. I dare say that many of the things that we do would compare to the work done by any school in the state, no matter what its size.

First of all, she does work for the university, and that would come first. She also trains and supervises the student technicians who repair circulating books. She will occasionally do things on contract for external clients—trustees, neighboring institutions, etc. This is as time permits, and it’s done on a fee basis. Some of these pieces are truly amazing. A document literally comes in as pieces in a shoebox, and it goes out looking like it was never damaged. There’s an ethical concern here, of course—she’s got to be very careful not to make an item look as if it never sustained any damage.

Some of our material is valuable, and a closed stack system helps reduce the chance of theft or damage. Believe it or not, there are professional thieves across the country who know where to find items with a high street value and who are quite ingenious about getting what they want. A few years ago, one of these individuals made the rounds of some Ivy League libraries, cutting pages out of rare atlases with a thin linen cord hidden in his cuff. The maps were then rolled around his arm and hidden under the sleeve of his coat. He kept a want list from collectors across the country to whom he sold the maps, posing as a legitimate dealer.

Coming to Bradley
After completing undergraduate and graduate degrees in English, I wasn’t terribly sure what I was going to do. Eventually, I ended up teaching freshman composition at Western Illinois University. The library director there was planning a large expansion, and said any faculty interested in changing careers would be given preference in hiring, but they would first have to get a masters degree in library science. And so, several of us went to work on a degree at the University of Illinois. As we were doing that, the situation at Western changed and the prospects for a job vanished, but a few of us decided to stick it out because we found what we were doing to be sufficiently interesting.

I came to Bradley by accident, really. I became friends with someone who was already employed at the Bradley library and, one day, she told me about an unanticipated vacancy and encouraged me to apply for it. At the time, I wasn’t even sure where Bradley was, and I kind of put her off. Unbeknownst to me, she was also talking to the library director, saying, “I’ve got the perfect person for this job; you’ve got to bring him in for an interview.” And so, it was just a convergence.

Special Collections Gets Started
The library director was interested in starting a special collections program and must have thought that, with my background, I would be a good partner. Bradley owned rare and unusual materials since it opened, but never had an actual program to deal with them. Like many institutions, Bradley kept these materials in an unstaffed locked room, with few records to indicate what was there. We wanted to take that up to a level similar to programs in much larger institutions, with widely available information about our holdings, regular hours, staff to assist users and some way to ensure the safety of the materials while they were used.

The opportunity to achieve that came when we discovered a potential major donor who also wanted such a program. Her late husband was a descendent of Bishop Philander Chase, who started Jubilee College near Peoria in 1837, and she had thousands of letters and other Chase material. At the time, Chase was just beginning to be recognized as a major figure in Illinois history, and she was willing to help us develop a program so the material could remain close to the area in which it was created. Our start was modest. We took over some areas in the basement, did minimal renovation, and called it “Special Collections.”

The Center Expands
The next major development occurred when the Peoria Historical Society put its entire library on deposit in 1980. That collection occupied most of a semitrailer! Interest in Special Collections soon grew to the point where we started to realize we really needed a staff, so I got approval to hire a student as a staff person, and later, hired several more students.

» Major Collections
On deposit at the university since 1980, this collection contains more than 10,000 items pertaining to the history of Peoria and central Illinois. Nearly 100 linear feet of vertical files contain ephemera indexed by subjects such as family and street names and types of businesses and organizations. Holdings also include a library of publications by area authors, a reference collection of books on local history, and thousands of photographic images of early Peoria. This is one of the first stops for researchers of local central Illinois history.

This collection contains archival material and artifacts pertaining to the history of Bradley University and, by extension, the people, events and activities of central Illinois for the past century. It includes a virtually complete runs of student newspapers, yearbooks and catalogs; published histories of the institution; scrapbooks of materials from 1894 to 1916; and a number of sound recordings, videos and film of university events.

A Lincoln collection is de rigeur for libraries in Illinois. Bradley’s Lincoln holdings include approximately 2,500 items relating to the 16th president and the Civil War, including several original letters written in Lincoln’s hand and a notebook he kept while a candidate for the U. S. Senate in 1855.

One of Bradley’s original faculty members and an internationally famous scholar in the field of manual arts, Charles A. Bennett was a prolific writer and publisher who kept a huge personal library that detailed the industrial arts education movement all over the world. Bennett also founded the Manual Arts Press, now part of Glencoe-McGraw Hill.

The Association of Public Safety Communications Officers is the world’s oldest and largest public safety radio user group, drawing its members from law enforcement agencies, emergency medical services, fire departments and the like. The APCO collection contains decades of material from the Illinois chapter. “It’s esoteric, but it’s well used,” says Frey. “And there are some interesting overlaps with other fields. Remember Dick Tracy? The founder of APCO was a good friend of the cartoonist who drew Dick Tracy. The wrist radios and all the weird little technologies were suggested by the guy from APCO and then drawn into the comic.”

The Chase collection contains materials pertaining to Bishop Philander Chase (1775-1852), the first Episcopal bishop of Illinois and the founder of Kenyon and Jubilee colleges. The heart of the collection is a group of 2,600 manuscript letters to and from the Bishop and his family. The widow of one of his descendants helped provide the funding to get the Special Collections Center started, and it was named after another descendant, Virginius H. Chase, a Peorian who became a widely recognized authority on the botany and natural history of Illinois.

Jack Bradley developed his talent as a combat photographer during the Korean War where he earned numerous medals and awards. After discharge, he worked for a Peoria television station as its first newsreel photographer before joining the Peoria Journal Star in 1955. The collection contains over 2,000 images shot by Bradley from 1955 to 1977. The majority focus on human interest subjects such as small town life, architecture, sports and recreation, religion, cemeteries, politics, the homeless, the Illinois River and country life.

In 1982, we hired a book binder; that was another fortuitous convergence of events. He was a political refugee from Poland, where he had spent seven years apprenticing as a bookbinder in a very large monastery library. Of course, the Communist system being what it was, the government then appointed him manager of a factory that made prefabricated concrete homes! But his skill as a bookbinder made him a rare commodity in the United States, and we were able to get approval to hire him because a lot of our rare materials needed the sort of treatment you couldn’t get from a commercial bindery.

Shortly after that, we hired two paraprofessionals who are both still with us today. One has a master’s degree in history, and the other an undergraduate degree from the U of I with extensive experience in regional history. Both were overqualified for the job, but we just got lucky. The program soon grew and developed to the point where we needed all of their skills.

Eventually, we outgrew our quarters, and with the expansion of the library in 1989, Special Collections moved up to the third floor. The library expansion was part of Bradley’s first successful capital campaign. It doubled the size of the building and allowed us to move out of the basement. It also allowed us to have a voice in the design of the facility. Things that would have been difficult, if not impossible, to retrofit became feasible as part of a building project.

The expansion was intended to meet our needs until the year 2000. And it did. But 2000 has come and gone, and we’re out of space again. Our vault area is full, and we’ve had to store things in other locations around the building. Some of our backlog has even spilled into the reading room because we have no other place to put it. So we’re again looking at options for expanding.

Climate Control and Security
We try to maintain a constant level of temperature and humidity, because it is the fluctuations in temperature and humidity that accelerate the deterioration of materials. Paper and similar organic materials will expand and contract, and if they’re brittle, or if the bindings are bad, it doesn’t take much to shorten their lives.

Generally, we try to keep things around 68 degrees and 40 percent humidity. This requires us to be cut off from the rest of the building. We have our own HVAC unit; it’s more what you’d see in a hospital or a computer server room. We use recording hygrothermographs that mark temperature and humidity every couple of minutes. In our storage area, we also use a gas fire suppression system. It’s not cheap, but it has the advantage of not leaving any residue, like a CO2 system.

Security is such that the door is always locked; you have to be buzzed in or out. There are two types of camera surveillance systems. One records everything onto a server, and any authorized person can get on the Internet and review what’s going on. For real-time monitoring, we use plain old TV cameras hooked up to monitors, which allow us to move around but still see what’s happening in the reading room.

Accepting Donations
One of the big determinants is space. When we do take things, we accept them as “unrestricted gifts,” which means we’re able to pare the donation down to just the most significant material. Of course, we offer to return to the donor what we don’t take, or try to find a home for it elsewhere, or dispose of it at our annual book sale.

Our major consideration when considering a gift is how it matches our established collecting interests. Our collection development policy outlines in the broadest terms what we’re interested in. We will also consider whether a donation meets a curricular interest. Even if something is outside the scope of our collection policy, we may consider accepting it if it would support the university academically, and there’s faculty buy-in.

Probably the best example is the sports communication collection. One of our supporters who helped establish the sports communication major was the widow of nationally known Chicago Sun Times sportswriter Robert Pille, and she wanted to donate his library. Now, if you look at our policy, there’s no mention of sports, but because this initiative has all the appearance of becoming a major program, there is curricular relevance. So we not only accepted the material, but repurposed some space to establish a Sports Communication Resource Center.

A few years ago, a teacher in our English department wanted to use the works of an early 19th century British poet named Felicia Hemans in his class. Few of her poems had been reprinted, so we found ourselves in the antiquarian market for original editions. Technically, that also didn’t fit the policy. So, while we have a theoretical direction, we also try to be very practical. If there’s anything within reason we can do to support instruction here, we’ll do so.

The Problems of Digitization
One of the problems with digitization is software compatibility, particularly backward compatibility. When programs are discontinued or revised, the files you created with the older program often turn out to be unreadable. I regularly find CDs burned two years ago that can’t be read on a new computer. The file formats or the speeds change…and I think that’s something the industry doesn’t perceive as a priority. They’re so intent on always improving, they don’t realize that a lot of their customer base is going to have older media.

You also have a problem with just the physical lifespan. There’s a significant lack of industry standards for the manufacture of CDs. And what few tests have been run on them show that the lifespan could be anywhere from two years to a century, so it’s not something you really want to bet the farm on.

Another factor often overlooked is the sheer cost in labor for digitization. I wish I had a nickel for every time that people would offer me the insight of “Well, all you have to do is digitize your collection!” Great idea, if you have a few hundred thousand dollars and a couple of years to spare.

Scans are slow, and it’s an involved process, particularly with images which often have to be manipulated. And of course, the images themselves aren’t much good without metadata, so you have to enter something that will help identify them. Even in a fairly small collection like ours, that might occupy the entire careers of several people! The other alternative is to hire a vendor to do it—but then you could be talking about even greater expense. So you end up trying to be very selective. You try to pick the most important things that will interest people and hope you can go back and do the others. iBi