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Putting the ‘special’ in Special Collections

Patrick Olson rummages through MSU Library’s hoard of rare books


What puts the ‘special’ in Michigan State University’s Special Collections?

Patrick Olson, head of Special Collections, had just finished installing an exhibition of graphic novels in the MSU Library for the upcoming MSU Comics Forum, when he took some time to answer that question.

“When I assumed the job in 2014, I said the collection should be used as a 21st century teaching tool,” Olson said. “The mission is to get the material in the hands of classes and the community.”

The collection, which holds more than 450,000 printed works, ranges from early Renaissance material to Fourth Folio Shakespeare, and from early comics to SDS posters.

“I want people to see books from those times as people saw them then,” Olson said.

MSU has one of the world’s largest collections of comics, books on popular culture and material cataloging radicalism of all stripes. In the last few years, the comic collection has added more than 45,000 foreign-language comics.

Olson’s own special interest trends more toward books of the hand press era, which ran from 1440 until about 1830.

“I’m definitely a hand press person,” Olson said. An old hand press is currently under restoration and will be used for demonstrations at the MSU Library.

Special Collections already had a good collection of almanacs, but it went from good to great when it received the collection of William and Helen Chase.

The Chases are the founders and publishers of “Chase’s Calendar of Events,” an international guide to daily festivals, celebrations, anniversaries and other chronological activities. Chase’s is celebrating its 60th anniversary with its 2018 edition.

“Chase collected books on chronology and it was a working collection for him,” Olson said. “The collection of almanacs got immediate use by a class studying early astronomy.”

Almanacs typically cover phases of the moon, sun and other astronomical occurrences, along with astrology and rare appearances of asteroids.

Special Collection’s hoard is now approaching a thousand individual almanacs, even boasting an early German almanac from 1494.

The single-sheet German almanac, published to be hung on a wall, informs the owner about daily activities such as bloodletting and purging. It also includes planting timetables.

That the early German almanac survived was a matter of luck. It was cut in half and then used to line a book binding, a common printing practice at the time.

A story in Monday’s New York Times told of a librarian at Union College in Schenectady, New York, who recently discovered a 1793 almanac with hair clippings from George Washington tucked inside.

Which seems to prove Olson’s point that almanacs, “are a great way to study individual culture.”

Olson said some of the almanacs in the collection have hand-written notes in them, and it wasn’t unusual for owners to detail temperatures, rain and snowfall along with planting dates.

“People mostly tossed these almanacs away. I wanted the collection to take popular culture and push it back in time,” Olson said.

Almanacs were popularized in the United States when Benjamin Franklin began publishing “Poor Richard’s Almanac” in 1732. The MSU collection has a 1753 Poor Richard’s Almanac with Franklin’s imprint.

Olson said another goal of his is to expand the LGBTQ collection, which recently added the records of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, held annually from 1976-2015.

MSU is also adding to the “Changing Men Collection,” which catalogs the pro-feminist men’s movement. Olson is also busily cataloging and processing material to be added to the “Arsenal Collection,” which consists of radical right-wing literature.

Olson said he developed a love for old books from a junior high teacher, who told the students about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s first book, “Fanshawe.” After an abysmal reception, the author of “The Scarlet Letter” bought up the remainders, finding a rare collectible in the process.

As an undergraduate, Olson also worked at a Chicago rare books dealer, which added to his appreciation for rare tomes.

An article in the popular wesbite and book “Atlas Obscura” mentions a rare book in MSU’s Special Collections — “Shadows on the Wall of Death,” which tells of poisonous wallpaper. The article went viral, and brought attention to the vast variety of books contained in the MSU Library.

Olson said he is anxious to provide more public services, and ultimately move the collection into a newly renovated space with improved climate control and more space to develop collections.

The research you do in determining rarity of a book for resale is “in dollar and cents,” Olson said.


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