The Romance of the Archive
October 08, 2020
For anyone who enjoys a good mystery, Megan Firestone’s description of the work carried out by special-collections librarians will sound more than appealing. “You become a detective, and you’re having to piece together your case,” she explains. “You’re not just looking for one piece of evidence—that one letter where somebody said something or that proves your case. You need to read 50 pieces of correspondence to find out what’s going on.”
She might not sport a deerstalker cap or play a fierce violin, but as head of special collections and archives, Firestone is Southwestern’s go-to sleuth when it comes to helping library patrons locate the texts and objects that can solve their respective research puzzles. She also collects, catalogs, preserves, and writes about the precious items that are archived in the former three-story Cody Memorial Library, now part of the Smith Library Center. Southwestern houses one of the largest special collections for a university of its size: during the past 81 years, SU alumni, Georgetown residents, and other donors have contributed more than 20,000 print volumes and more than 1,500 linear feet of archival material—meaning if you stacked them end to end, these documents would span 1,500 feet in length. “And we’re not just old books!” she insists with a laugh. New items are added all the time, she says, with the most recent physical artifacts contributed earlier this year, as well as a growing COVID-19 digital archive titled 20/20 Distance.
Firestone—whose background includes training in museums and archives, public history and oral history, and even graphic design—explains that unlike the main library, which contains contemporary books, periodicals, and digital assets that can circulate and support the latest research and academic curriculum, the items in Special Collections are classified as “rare and unique” and cannot be checked out. Instead, patrons and guests must handle these objects in the Tower Reading Room, an airy, light-filled chamber that may be familiar to viewers and readers of Southwestern’s many admissions videos and brochures. Those items range from a tiny cuneiform tablet that dates back to 2,000 BCE and a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible to memorabilia from the political campaigns of former U.S. presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush.
“Our goal at Special Collections is caring for things that have a historical significance or that were moved from the main collection for a reason,” Firestone says. Those reasons can include the value of the object or its rarity. For example, Southwestern’s is the only archive where the records of John G. Tower—a U.S. senator and 1948 graduate of SU whose name adorns the Reading Room—can be found, so it makes sense that these artifacts must be handled with care. However, Firestone is adamant that Special Collections is “not about locking everything up. We’re not keeping these materials hidden from the world. Our items are meant to be used. We’re just making sure they are here for generation after generation after generation for the Southwestern and larger communities.”
“Our goal at Special Collections is caring for things that have a historical significance or that were moved from the main collection for a reason”
In fact, since she arrived at the university in January 2019, one of Firestone’s big goals has been to, as she says, “bring down the barriers. A lot of students think, Oh, I can’t go in there. That’s my professors’ space. But no, this is your place. We want you here. We want you to experience Special Collections. If you’re not using the materials, then why are we saving them?”
When she contemplates the range of materials that students, faculty, and Georgetown community members can enjoy, a beatific smile spreads across her face. “We are blessed with so many different things. I love the variety and the diversity and the adaptability of our collection,” she says excitedly. That expansive catalogue includes textiles and accessories, such as former SU presidents’ eyeglasses as well as the bodice of a dress worn by the wife of a Southwestern president, which can reveal trends in early-20th-century fashion. Other objects of interest include nineteenth-century literary and historical artifacts, such as first editions of novels by Mark Twain, the first-known letter written by Herman Melville, materials supplied by the Edgar Allan Poe Society, and medical textbooks from a physician who died at the Battle of the Alamo. A more recent addition that Firestone finds fascinating is an hourlong video shot by a Southwestern student between 1946 and 1950. It captures on film the campus as the university was just emerging from World War II. “I don’t want to say one item is more my favorite than any other. It’s hard because there are parts that are so much fun, it’s almost like trying to pick a favorite child!” Firestone says with relish. She’s also tickled that she continues to learn all the time, discovering surprises among the vast assemblage, such as the recent find of a letter penned by Charles Dickens to a fellow author.
The librarian, the special collections and archives assistant, and their student workers collaborate often with faculty to pull items to share during show-and-tell tours. But Special Collections serves as a rich hands-on learning resource as well as a muse of creative inspiration for students and professors even beyond such class visits. This year, for example, one political science seminar curated an exhibit for the space to commemorate the election year, which recently made its online debut. Students researched, selected the artifacts to be displayed, and wrote the accompanying labels. Last fall, an art history class put on the iconic white cotton gloves familiar to reading-room denizens to determine whether 19th- and early-20th-century photographs were daguerrotypes, albumen prints, cabinet types, or others. Yet another class considered how a 42.5-foot-long facsimile of a Mayan codex, or manuscript, would have been produced: What types of ink would have been used? What kinds of fibers? “I love working with students. I love watching them light up when they start seeing this world and the excitement they get holding an item or just knowing that these things have been here for so long and are still here for them,” Firestone shares. She especially appreciates when students are able to connect their artifact-inspired insights to ideas they’ve learned in class or in other subject areas. “It’s why I love Paideia!” she adds with obvious enthusiasm.
Firestone says that her dream is to have every Southwestern student—from first-year to senior—visit Special Collections during their undergraduate years, to figure out what they want to do in the space, and to learn from the extensive resources available to them. She wants them to experience what she experiences when working with such intriguing materials: the reward of feeling “connected to the people who owned them and to the history of those people.” She adds that even beyond the content of a rare manuscript or a 20th-century yearbook, discussing how something was made, who it belonged to, and why it’s being preserved can shed light on unfamiliar people, places, and periods of time. And that remains true regardless of whether a children’s history book contains inaccurate details or an old campaign poster displays language that would now be deemed derogatory. “We don’t shy away from what went before,” Firestone asserts. “We learn from it, and we put it out there and preserve that history.”
Ultimately, there’s a lot to learn from any item one might discover in Southwestern’s archive, even if you’re not a history major. Says Firestone with a glimmer in her eye, “Special Collections is definitely a place to spark your curiosity.”