Revel in the History: Colorado College's Special Collections

Words: Kate Perdoni

Photos: Kendall Rock

What expenses are listed in a Colorado Springs business ledger at the beginning of the first World War? What can you discover from a local young woman’s diary from 1926? How do you make a book simply from folded paper? How did student textbooks read at the turn of the century? Within the Special Collections facility at Colorado College’s Tutt Library, the public can explore rare books, special editions, personal manuscripts and all material forms of the archived written word, with many items dating back to before 1882. These materials comprise the history of not only physical text, but of our region. They are available to study and enjoy during regular library hours.

Jessy Randall is the Curator and Archivist of Special Collections.

What is your role within Special Collections?

I’m in charge of developing and maintaining materials in the library that are old, rare, fragile, valuable, and/or special to us in some way and requiring extra care. I also look after the college’s records of its own history. I develop the collection--in other words, I buy materials and make decisions about accepting donations of materials. I lead instruction sessions with CC classes and other groups, help researchers in person and by email or phone, supervise the work of the rare books cataloger and generally manage things in the department.

How many pieces does Special Collections currently posses? How are they divided by category?

We have about 20,000 cataloged things! A thing could be a single book, a 12-volume set of books, a single piece of paper (say, an autograph of Abraham Lincoln), a manuscript collection that takes up 100 boxes, and so on. Our main subject areas are Colorado history, rare books, and Colorado College archives. Colorado history includes printed materials and ephemera such as playbills, menus and bumper stickers, photographs and manuscript materials like letters and diaries. Our rare books collection looks at teaching the history of the book as an object, including very old texts as well as modern-day artists' books. The Colorado College archives include CC publications, college records and photographs.

How do you acquire new items for the Collections?

Most of our materials come to us by gift, but we have a small budget for purchasing materials that relate to local history and/or CC curriculum, including our curriculum in book studies.

What are some of your favorite items?

Candace Hicks’s embroidered composition book is probably my favorite thing we have right now. I love it the way a kid loves her teddy bear. I want to cuddle it while I sleep. (But I don’t.) I also love Willem Piso’s 17th century book on natural history, which includes gorgeous engravings of animals and plants. My favorite illustration depicts a dodo and is probably the last dodo drawn from life–the dodo went extinct around the time this book came out. Oh, and I love the CC Zine Collection, which is very dear to my heart!

What are some of the most bizarre or unusual items?

We have a book made of glass, and books that incorporate organic materials like egg shells, snake skin, and human toenails. We have clay tablets from 4000 years ago. We have an epic poem about syphilis, yes the disease of syphilis, written in Latin and published about 1720. (That one is so weird it’s hard to believe it even exists, but it does: here's your proof)

What item is requested to be seen most frequently?

Helen Hunt Jackson’s papers are probably our biggest claim to fame. People come from all over the world to use them.

What would you consider to be the hidden gems of Special Collections?

We try not to hide anything! But of course we have some things that I think deserve more attention than they receive. I would love it if CC students were into the CC Zine Collection, but I think their minds are on other things, for the most part. For years, I’ve been trying to interest researchers in an exchange of letters between writer Helen Hunt Jackson and out-of-the-closet, cross-dressing actress Charlotte Cushman (transcribed here).

Are there items currently on your radar that you desire to acquire?

I have a list of desiderata with about twenty things on it. I’d love to have more primary sources concerning local Indian tribes, but it’s hard to find primary sources for cultures whose history is mostly oral rather than written. For about fifteen years I’ve been hoping to find a copy of Helen Hunt Jackson’s first book, a translation of Bathmendi published in 1867, but no luck yet. We have a few issues of some early African-American newspapers in Colorado Springs – I’d love to fill in the gaps in the Voice, the Sun, the Light, and others. I’d love to acquire a few more examples of incunabula (books printed before 1501) or medieval manuscript books. A book of hours would be fantastic. Or a bestiary! I’d die of joy if we got a bestiary.

What does Special Collections tell us about the history of Colorado Springs?

There are so many stories of our history that it’s hard to pick just one! I’m particularly interested in the town’s history of tourism. We have a lot of materials to support that kind of research–like 19th century tourist brochures and booklets, with enticements to come here for your health or for financial success.

Steven Blumburg, the famous book thief, had a hand in CC's Special Collections. Can you tell this story?

Stephen Blumberg is a pretty interesting character. There’s a chapter all about him in Nicholas Basbanes’s book "A Gentle Madness. " He stole not to sell books, but to amass his own personal collection. In the 1980s, before my time here, Stephen Blumberg stole at least two books from CC. One of these was no big deal (a 1930s pamphlet on Bent’s Fort), but the other was rare and valuable, Henry Villard’s The Past and Present of the Pikes Peak Gold Region (1860). Blumberg removed the CC bookplate from the Villard book by using his own saliva, as was his wont to do! Library staff worked with the FBI to get the books back. It was particularly complicated, because Blumburg not only removed library ownership marks from books–he also put in false library marks, to confuse things. So a book stolen from Harvard might get a University of Michigan bookplate slapped onto it, and then a “withdrawn” stamp on top of that.

Is CC's Special Collections division different than other institutions'? If so, what sets it apart?

For a college our size, we have a pretty impressive collection, I think. I mean, I was impressed by it when I first arrived! I have a theory on why it’s so good, but I don’t really have evidence to support it. I think maybe for a long time if you were a book collector in the west or southwest, CC seemed like a good, safe place to donate your books. And of course there was all that railroad and mining money, which meant that local collectors could afford to acquire good stuff. But I don’t know for sure why we have so many treasures.


Special Collections at Colorado College

Colorado College Zine Collection

Wikipedia entry on Stephen Blumberg, the “Book Bandit”