UWM Special Collections offers books of glass, on pillows and in jars
The library is a beautiful thing. Where else can you walk in and borrow something that's of value to you – on not much more than the promise to return it in a week or two or three? Try this at an electronics store or a shoe shop or a car dealership. It doesn't work.
"I'm just gonna check out this here Chrysler for a while and then bring it back, mmmkay?"
However, truth be told, not everything is check-out-able at libraries either, a fact made clear to us during a recent visit to the Special Collections at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Golda Meir Libraries, 2311 E. Hartford Ave.
The materials stay in the reading room at all times, but students / researchers can stop in to request items during the regular business hours, which are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, or by appointment.
Special Collections is housed on the fourth floor of the UWM libraries, in a closed-off reading room.
To spend time with the books readers must present an ID and follow strict rules, like no pens, backpack or coats in the reading area. (There are accessible, free lockers available.)
The purpose of Special Collections is to preserve original printed materials and, according to Special Collections librarian, Max Yela, there are about 60-65,000 books in the collection. Although UWM's Special Collections section is not huge compared to other universities', its artist book collection has a world-wide reputation.
The rest of the collection includes American nursing history, art and architecture, aviation history, contemporary fine-press printing, UWM authors, women's studies, Native American literature, local small press publishing and more.
"We don't collect books just because of the information inside of them. Of course, that's part of the reason, but we're trying to preserve them as objects," says Yela. "The objects can be 500 years old or they could have been printed yesterday. The important thing is they come in a form and we try to preserve the form because it, too, has what we need to do our teaching and research."
The oldest book in the collection is from 1475. Most of the books are donated, but some are purchased through state and private funds. The books range in price from $2 to $150,000. What type of book costs $150,000?
"The kind of book someone's willing to pay $150,000 for," says Yela.
The UWM authors' collection is the most requested section in Special Collections. Many times, undergraduate students request the books to avoid buying them, but the reason why the faculties' books are in Special Collections runs deeper.
"It's not simply because UWM authors wrote these books. We're trying to preserve the objects because they document the intellectual history of the university," says Yela.
Originally, we went to Special Collections in search of "books on pillows," meaning fragile books that when requested are presented on a pillow, but we found out a lot more than just really old books get pillow placement, including books pickled inside jars and books with pages made from glass.
Books are presented on pillows when they are fragile, need binding support or made of unconventional materials that could scratch or bleed on the tabletops. We were slightly disappointed the pillows were flat and white – more like the pillows on an airplane. We were hoping for something velvet with tassels.
"That's ridiculous," says Yela.
Fair enough, but seriously, do the staff ever nap atop the pillows?
"That's what the couches are for," says Lee Wagner, Special Collections office manager.
The UWM Special Collections does not require readers to wear gloves, unlike other Special Collections in other libraries. According to Wagner, it's a matter of library policy.
"If I have you wear gloves, I'm taking away a certain research potential," says Yela.
Yela understands, even expects, that human oils from fingertips will get on the books and, over time, could alter the appearance. There's a give-and-take between experiencing the books – handling them – even though touch compromises the goal of preservation / conservation.
"Of course we are going to get our oils all over these books because we're slimy. Our hands are slimy and constantly secreting. We're like slugs. We crawl over everything and we leave our residue on everything," says Yela. "But this is not a museum. This is a research facility. Part of the information is the artifact."
Yela believes wearing gloves could even damage the books because it desensitizes the hands. Some books are preserved in phase boxes, called such because insertion in the box is the first phase in conservation. The library has three or four books restored every year, but it's expensive.
"Our ultimate goal is to try to restore the books to the original condition and that costs a lot of money and probably never will restore all of them, so this is the first phase towards that, get them in a box so they don't fall apart or hurt other books or get hurt by books," says Yela.
Special Collections books are stored in a space with constant humidity, so it feels a little warmer than rest of the library, but is actually higher in humidity content, which is good for paper.
"The general stacks are like deserts," says Yela. "The conditions in Special Collections will slow down the chemical process that happens in books that are facilitated by dry air."
All of the lights in Special Collections are cased in ultraviolet sleeves to reduce the radiation from florescent light which can be very damaging to books. Of course, readers need a lot of light for reading, so once again it's a give-and-take situation to accommodate both the needs of the books and the readers.
Sniffing the books is also encouraged in Special Collections, because how it smells is just as important as what it says. We sniffed dozens of books from signed collections of Charles Bukowski poems to IWW song books to vintage Wonder Woman comics.
For book lovers, it's all part of the experience: The way a book smells. The way it sounds when you open it and turn the pages. The weight of it. The appearance.
Special Collections also houses an impressive selection of invisible books. (Ahem.) A few years ago, Special Collections presented an exhibition of all of the invisible books in the world.
"We got them all together and it was hard to do because they are hard to see," says Yela.
When we ask him how many pages the largest invisible book has, Yela says he couldn't tell us that because, of course, the page numbers are invisible, too. (Duh).
"But I'm pretty sure it's in English," he says.
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