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Wednesday, May 26,2010

Michigan State’s treasure trove

Special Collections has Batman, Pulitzer winners, antique wallpaper samples

by Bill Castanier
Batman, Superman and Iron Man share the basement with three Pulitzer Prize-winning authors at Michigan State University.

It’s not a plot for a comic book. They make space for each other in the University Library’s Special Collections unit, which has one of the world’s largest collections of comics and can also brag about holding the papers of such literary luminaries as Richard Ford, Robert Coles and Russell Nye.


Batman and company need no intro Man Pulitzer State They University which collections luminaries Russell duction, but the Pulitzer Prize winners aren’t as well known. Ford is an MSU graduate and an acclaimed author of the Frank Bascombe novels (“The Sportswriter” and “Independence Day”).


Robert Coles has written more than 75 books and his “Children of Crisis” series was awarded the Pulitzer. He is a renowned expert in children’s issues.


Russell Nye was an MSU professor of English who virtually invented the study of popular culture. His biography of George Bancroft was selected for a Pulitzer.


Peter I. Berg, head of Special Collections, is especially proud of the university’s holdings in radical thought, culinary, comic books, underground newspapers and its extensive LGBT collection.


MSU continues to add to its collection primarily through funds provided by donors and gifts. Recently, Special Collections has been acquiring materials on the radical right, with more than 2,000 pieces already catalogued.


Berg says the collection complements the already extensive collection of books, newspapers and ephemera from the radical left.


“It reflects what our radical collection should represent: all sides,” he said. “‘Radical’ changes over time.”


Berg said some of the radical right material is one-of-a-kind and, although some of it is now 15 years old, it’s just as timely today.


In one ironic note the material from the radical right was acquired with funds from the Beth Shapiro Endowment Fund. Shapiro, an MSU librarian, was an officer in the Students for a Democratic Society.


Last weekend, members of MSU’s Mid Michigan Alumni Club got a cook’s tour of the collection, including a recently acquired facsimile of DaVinci’s Leicester Codex; Berg said the original was purchased by Bill Gates for $35 million. Also displayed was the Scriptores Rei Rusticae, which is a series of classical texts on agriculture printed in Venice in 1472, only 15 years after the invention of moveable type.


In the recent tour, former MSU Trustee Carole Lick was drawn to material on the Southern African Liberation Committee in the Africana collection; Lick voted for university divestment when she was trustee from 1979 to 1987.


Retired philosophy Professor Donald Kochs accompanied his spouse, former Trustee Barbara Sawyer-Kochs, and was impressed with the 1848 book ”Samaritan” and an original copy of the Book of Mormon, dating from 1830.


But most of all, he was drawn to a oneof-a-kind collection of wallpaper samples collected by MSU chemistry Professor Frank S. Kedzie. The samples are encased in plastic, not necessarily to protect the samples but rather to protect the patron — the samples are laced with arsenic, which was used in coloration.


Berg said Special Collections is used primarily by MSU undergraduates and graduate students, but advanced researchers also use the collection for special purposes, such as researching books or looking for illustrations.


What they might see would surprise some visitors. How about a couple of Richard Ford’s boxes that hold his notes and manuscripts for “Independence Day,” his Pulitzer-winning novel?


That collection begins with Ford’s research notes on everything from restaurant napkins to hotel stationery, Berg said.


There is also his hand-written draft and the many subsequent drafts, including those edited by his wife, Kristina.


“The reason we value these manuscripts so highly is scholars and students can see how a germ of an idea develops and changes: You can truly see the artisan at work,” Berg said.


Novelist and MSU graduate Tom McGuane also has his papers in the Special Collections unit. One part of the collection that won’t see light of day any time soon is the extensive collection of letters between McGuane and MSU graduate and novelist Jim Harrison. McGuane is no hurry to see the letters between the two make it into print, and the letters are currently sealed.


Berg said the collections of McGuane, Ford, Nye and Harrison represent “where writing is and was in the 20th century.”


McGuane’s collection of papers also includes his edits of movie scripts, including the script from the Marlon Brando/ Jack Nicholson western “The Missouri Breaks.” It complements the collection of scripts from Jim Cash and Jack Epps (“Top Gun,” “Dick Tracy,” “The Secret of My Success”).


Berg said one collection that attracts a lot of interest is from Ray Stannard Baker, who collected approximately 200 texts on early beekeeping, including a volume from the 16th century. Baker was a graduate of Michigan Agricultural College and was a noted author; Baker Hall on campus is named for him.


Berg says his favorite item is whatever has been recently acquired. “To say I have a favorite is too hard,” he said. “It changes from week to week.”

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