Hidden relics of the library
By Ed De La Garza
Daily Cougar Staff
It's an area of the University that's often forgotten. But up on the
seventh floor, the M.D. Anderson Memorial Library staff helps provide students,
faculty and staff with a portal to the past.
Brian Viney/The Daily Cougar
The oldest relic in the Special Collections Department
dates back to 2000 B.C., but this 16th-century replica of an Egyptian hieroglyphic
tablet is still impressively antique.
The special collections and archives department of the University is
home to thousands of books, manuscripts, writings and various materials,
some dating back to 2000 B.C., others as recent as the new UH course
But if many students in the English department or a women's studies
class didn't have to pay it a visit, most would not know about the library's
seventh and eighth floors.
The department is accessible from the blue-wing elevators on the library's
first floor or via a transfer elevator from the main elevators in the brown
wing. Either way, it's worth the time.
Students who are part of a class receive a brief seminar from Special
Collections Librarian Julie Grob highlighting the main things they can
to find, as well as rules for looking through the often-delicate materials.
Visitors are asked to keep their belongings in lockers outside the office.
They should also be prepared to fill out a "Patron Registration Form" if
will actually be using the materials. Only pencils may be used in the
reading room. Photographs may be taken with the supervision of a staff
member. Some materials can be photocopied, but copying must be done
by special collections staff.
But once the rules and paperwork are out of the way, the department
offers a wealth of learning opportunities. And while many students may
want to complete an assignment and get back to the present, some actually
find the materials interesting.
"In most of the classes, the students are in there looking at rare books,"
Grob said. "I find the students are really excited about seeing a 16th-century
book, something they've never seen before. They really have a reverence
for the rare books and old documents they're looking at."
But patrons don't only look at old books or illuminated manuscripts.
The department also has a slew of older items beneficial for research.
"The oldest item is a Sumerian tablet produced under Sulgi-Simtum (a
Sumerian queen) in 2000 B.C.," Grob said. "It's a actually a receipt for
lambs. We have a little conservation box specially made for it."
That item may be an extreme, but special collections, which houses a
broad array of literature and archives, specializes in University documents
and records and offers more than just research help. The department
is also helpful to those wanting to learn more about the University.
Even University Archivist Sarah Frazer, someone who spends a lot of
time pouring over an endless supply of UH information, finds photos and
other documentation interesting.
"Old photos are a portal into a period of time," Frazer said. "It's
strange to see people smoking in class. The old Daily Cougars show trends.
see how things have changed or haven't, and what advertising was allowed."
It's the old publications -- such as the original Cougar, published
in 1928 when the University was still Houston Junior College, old student
directories and Frontier Fiesta promotional material -- that offer
a glimpse into what life was like at UH during its growth. It's information
only be found in special collections and archives.
The department didn't just spring up overnight. The thousands of items
needed the help of a national trend that found the other colleges wanting
give their students broader access to research and the institutions'
"There was such a big trend in the '60s toward university libraries
beginning special collections programs," Grob said. "The University had
bit of money back then."
The special collections department began in 1968, but the archives would
take a little longer. Its beginning may owe quite a bit to luck -- and
people's refusal to throw things away.
"It was supposed to start in the mid-'80s, but because of a financial
crisis in Texas and a hiring freeze, it wasn't able to," Frazer said. "Pat
(former University vice president and writer of In Time) was a pack
rat. A lot of things in my collection are actually things that he just
kept. It was in
early '96, late '95, that we could actually afford to have a paid position
for this department."
Nicholson's In Time is actually a good starting point for those wanting
to learn about the University. But from there, one needs to visit the archives
to view the materials mentioned in the book.
And while there is a budget to purchase materials in specialized areas
and to maintain the department, special collections owes much of its catalog
to the good graces of benefactors.
"Most of the rare books are gifts from donors -- we have certain really
significant donors," Grob said. "It continues to be the case that a majority
the really valuable and rare materials are gifts from people who collect
books and want to support the library. We also have a budget to buy other
things and buy research material."
But what good are dusty old books and stone tablets to students when
they can get so much research done on the Internet? The World Wide Web
may open doors to students, but it's only a visual. Special collections
allows students to get physical documentation. And it's the only place
to go for
specific areas of interest.
"As the University tends to go more electronic, people are using resources
from the Internet, (and) the materials in special collections and archives
are really unique," Grob said. "We're the only place that has materials
documenting the University of Houston. We can offer people research
experience that they can't get other places."
The importance of a good research department within the library is even
more important with the University's attempt at achieving Tier I status.
"(This department) is important to the research mission of the University,"
Frazer said. "We need to have a special collections and archives
department that is worthy and can help support this mission of research.
You can't do the research without having access to these materials."
Besides, where else can you see the entire history of the UH Board of
For more information on UH special collections and University archives,
call (713) 743-9752.