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Ethan Trex
11 (Extra) Special Collections in University Libraries
by Ethan Trex - March 11, 2010 - 2:44 PM

Usually when we head to the library, we’re looking for something relatively mundane, like a common book or a periodical. Step into a library’s special collections, though, and you’ll find all sorts of offbeat offerings. From puppets to porn, here’s a look at some unusual special collections one can peruse in reading rooms around the country.

1. Kidney Literature

kidney-desk

Yearning to learn more about your kidneys? Head to the University of North Carolina’s Carl W. Gottschalk Collection. The 12,400-item collection houses legendary medical professor Gottschalk’s passion: historical items related to the study of kidneys. Gottschalk’s medical research focused on the kidneys, and throughout his life he managed to collect texts, engravings, woodcuts, and other relics on the subject that dated back to the 16th century.

2. Glass Eyeballs

Not to be outdone, UNC’s rival Duke has an interesting medical collection of its own. When the Duke History of Medicine Collections underwent an internal audit last year, it found a number of interesting stockpiles in its holdings, including boxes of glass eyeballs and old surgical saws that date back nearly 400 years.

3. Showgirls

showgirls-vegas
Could a library collection that focuses on showgirls be anywhere other than UNLV? The school’s collection of showgirl-related memorabilia includes drawings and costumes that have been used in some of Vegas’ racy entertainments. And yes, there’s nudity, but the collection’s website notes “[I]t would be a misrepresentation of that history to ignore topless showgirls and their costumes. In the context of this exhibit the object is the costume, not the woman wearing it.”

4. Dean Martin

Showgirls aren’t the only Vegas institution immortalized in UNLV’s special collections. The school’s library also has a special exhibition that focuses on stalwart entertainer Dean Martin’s career at the Sands and other casinos, including early pictures of the Rat Pack yukking it up on stage.

5. Puppets

puppet-libraryIf you’re like me and feel just a little creeped out by puppets, you might want to steer clear of UC-Santa Barbara’s library. The Betsy Brown Puppetry Collection features everything you could ever want to see—possibly in your nightmares—related to puppets. The collection—which is named after famed puppeteer Betsy Brown—includes puppet plays, materials related to puppet design, photographs of puppets, and even puppet periodicals. If you can’t find the puppet materials you’re looking for here, try McGill University’s Rosalynde Stearn Puppet Collection, which contains 171 puppets of its own.

6. Witchcraft

If you’re looking for a particularly obscure spell, Cornell might have some answers for you. The Cornell Witchcraft Collection includes over 3,000 titles that examine the history of persecuted witches. Although the collection—which the school started assembling in the late 19th century—focuses mostly on the theological aspects of treating witches as heretics, there are also Latin volumes on demonology and graphic depictions of the torture of suspected witches.

7. Baby Books

UCLA-baby-book

For centuries parents have been keeping meticulous records of their children’s early years in baby books, and UCLA has an amazing special collection of these treasured mementos. The Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library has been working on building a collection of these memory books from the 19th through 21st centuries to help shed light on trends in early childhood care and children’s health. The collection includes everything from books that haven’t been filled out at all to diligently completed books. Where has the school been able to round up so many baby books? You guessed it: eBay.

8. Bloodletting

UCLA doesn’t just have baby books, though. The school also houses a collection devoted solely to bloodletting. The materials inside cover everything from the difficulties of applying leeches (you can try to dump them onto the patient out of a wine glass, but some will just stick to the glass) to pictures of the required instruments for a good bloodletting. Sure, the practice has been out of favor for well over a hundred years, but if it ever catches back on, head to Los Angeles to get up to speed.

9. Patent Medicine Ads

oil-of-gladness

UCLA’s libraries sound like an absolute goldmine. In addition to the aforementioned collections, it also houses a terrific set of patent medicine advertisements.

merchant-gargling

How can you pass up a chance to look at ads for products like A. Danforth’s Great Vegetable Pain Destroyer or Merchant’s Gargling Oil, which is good for burns, scalds, flesh wounds, hemorrhoids, toothaches, and “many other diseases incident to man and beast?” They’re all online here, and they’re absolutely worth checking out.

10. Libertine Literature

What’s libertine literature? To put it bluntly, it’s old smut. Princeton has a large collection of early English pornography, including what it calls “two of the earliest substantial pieces of pornographic writing in English.” Some of the material in the collection dates back to the 17th century, but it also contains items like Venus Miscellany, a 19th-century publication said to be America’s first pornographic newspaper. Sounds a little more exciting than the average trip to the periodicals room.

11. Magic

Princeton’s other unusual collection focuses on magic. Carl W. Jones, a 1911 Princeton grad, built up an impressive library of scrapbooks regarding the performance of magic in the U.S., and when he died his wife presented it to his alma mater. In addition to covering regular magic, the collection includes a number of rare early texts on witchcraft, including the 16th-century book De Praestigiis Daemonum, an influential text on demonology.
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Does your local library have a great special collection that we missed? Tell us about it in the comments!

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