Down the Rabbit Hole: A Look Inside Special Collections

by Christopher Cartwright | 9/27/17 2:25am


At first glance, the books all appear to be vastly different from one another. One is about a foot in length, while another could fit in my back pocket. The illustrations vary wildly — in one, horrific black and white drawings paint the page, while another seems to contain abstract art. Upon closer inspection, however, I discover that they are all versions of the same novel: “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

Stepping into the Rauner Special Collections Library is similar to falling down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. The library is a veritable treasure house, its holdings ranging from ancient cuneiform tablets to original Robert Frost manuscripts.

Special collections librarian Jay Satterfield discussed the importance of the library to the Dartmouth community.

“There’s about 130,000 rare books in the collection and 38,000 linear feet of archival and manuscript material,” Satterfield remarked.

To put that in perspective, the collection could fill nearly eight miles of bankers boxes.

Despite being an important source for researchers from around the world, the library’s main priority is to support classroom instruction.

“Our biggest [advantage] is the depth of our curricular involvement,” Satterfield said. “Last year 115 or 120 different classes met in special collections to use materials.”

In fact, the Alice in Wonderland books I encountered were on display for an upcoming class. The course, titled “Victorian Children’s Literature: Fairytale and Fantasy,” has its students split into groups and analyze how the story of Alice in Wonderland has changed over time. Students are able to interact with versions of the novel ranging from a first edition to a contemporary publication. The illustrations, in particular, have changed with each printing: in the first edition, the story is presented with children’s book illustrations, but later versions carry much darker connotations.

“What is it about Alice that makes her work in all of these different environments? Why can she be a flapper in the ’20s, a dark nightmare in the 1880s and this kind of fantastical journey in the 1860s?” Satterfield asked. “A lot of times, coming in here to look at a first edition of a book or series of editions like this can lead you to ask questions about a book that never would’ve occurred to you.”

I was curious about how the library verifies the authenticity of their manuscripts. It turns out that the process is usually self-evident: most of the time the library buys from dealers whose reputations are at stake, so that the dealers in question cannot afford to sell fake manuscripts. However, sometimes a counterfeit is exactly what the collection wants to obtain.

“We’ve purchased a few things knowing they’re fakes because they’re such good fakes,” Satterfield explained.

On the topic of manuscript forgery, religion professor Gregory Seton, who works primarily with ancient and modern Buddhist texts, described the process by which accidental errors occurred before the invention of the printing press. In order to get any book in India, Seton said, one would have had to go to a copyist and pay them to hand copy an original book.

“The copy that they make for you might have a bunch of mistakes in it because they are doing it by hand,” Seton said.

A chain then forms, in which errors multiply as each copy adds new mistakes to previous editions.

“You get all these divergences between various manuscripts,” Seton added. “So what people like myself, who work with manuscripts often, do is … try to get as many copies of a particular book in manuscript form as possible. That way, you can compare different streams of copies and you can figure out which one might be correct.”

English professor Alexandra Halasz, who is currently teaching a class titled “History of the Book,” shared this sentiment.

“It was hard [before the printing press] to know whether the exemplar you copied was a good exemplar or a corrupted exemplar,” Halasz said.

Her course explores how a book is manufactured, how publishing companies were established and how books work as a technology and form of expression. The class is held in Rauner and takes for consideration the library’s extensive resources.

“[Rauner has] a considerable number of [holdings] which have a great deal of value for scholarly purposes,” Halasz said. “What’s great about it now is that it’s so open to members of the community and the campus, so you can learn how to negotiate an archive.”

Satterfield considers easy accessibility a priority for the library, which he hopes will become a go-to destination for students, irrespective of their scheduled course meetings.

“Special Collections is just full of amazing things, and we try to be one of the easiest special collections to use,” Satterfield said. “We’re a very hands-on special collections. You can walk up [to the front] desk and ask for anything in the collection, and five minutes later you’re sitting at a table with it.”

Whether it’s writings from famous Arctic expeditions to Renaissance manuscripts, items at Rauner are readily available for viewing. The library even runs a blog dedicated to disseminating information about interesting objects and manuscripts in the collection. Satterfield noted one item featured on the blog: a giant wooden spoon, called the “Glutton’s spoon,” awarded annually to the heaviest eater of Dartmouth’s junior class. The tradition began sometime before 1871 and continued until 1906.

“When you come in here you’ll hear laughter, and you’ll hear people ‘oohing’ and ‘ahhing’ because … part of this is that just intense sense of wonder,” Satterfield said. “You see this and you can’t believe this exists.”

Without missing a beat, he pointed to the first edition copy of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” with Lewis Carroll’s monogram on the inside of the book cover. I saw the cover and emitted an audible gasp — exactly the kind of reaction the Rauner staff hopes to receive when people discover new items in the collection.

When I asked Satterfield what his favorite items in the collection were, he responded that it is always changing.

“It’s the thing I need that day,” he said. “There’s so much in here, and almost everything has some story behind it that makes it special.”

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