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Beyond the Stacks: Bird Library's special collections

From Gutenberg to Malcolm X, history is literally at your fingertips on the Bird's sixth floor.

It’s an old joke that a library’s worth is measured by how much its collection weighs.

Syracuse University’s Bird Library houses about 3 million volumes, and its Special Collections Research Center includes more than 145,000 printed works and more than 2,000 manuscript and archival collections.

Impressive numbers. But they don’t prove the millions of volumes are being used.

Photo: Jessica Showers


No. 1 (above). The cameras and equipment of famed photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White.

No. 2. Malcolm X's letter from Mecca to Alex Haley, co-author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

No. 3. Miklós Rózsa's Academy Award for his Ben-Hur musical score.

No. 4. Edison cylinders in the Belfer Audio Archives, which include some of the earliest music recordings.

No. 5. The papers and publications of Hugo Gernsback, the "father of science fiction."

With Special Collections boasting materials on cartoons, architecture and design, recorded sound, science fiction, literature, photography, television history, and much more, students, faculty and the public should be spending hours perusing on the sixth floor. Yes, the often overlooked sixth floor, which can only be accessed via elevator before 5 p.m.

“I think many libraries have these things, and they’re always sort of in these wood-paneled, silent, hard-to-get-to places,” said David Murray, former assistant dean for advancement at Bird Library and current executive director of special campaigns and initiatives in SU’s Central Office of Development.

“What’s great about Special Collections is that they’re available to anybody,” Murray said. “You can just walk in there and say, ‘Hi, I’d like to see the Gutenberg Bible.’ And they say, ‘OK, I’ll be right back.’”

Murray credits SCRC director Sean Quimby as a member of a “new generation of special collections librarians” changing this perception.

About a year ago, Dean Suzanne Thorin, Murray and Quimby, with help from library staffers, decided to take some of the SCRC’s more fascinating objects on a road show across the country. Their goal was to raise awareness of what the SCRC had to offer.

On two separate occasions, alumni sat and wept while reading a piece from the collection, Malcolm X’s letter from Mecca to Alex Haley, Murray recalled.

“These things have great power,” Murray said. “They’re physical incarnations of history.”

SU alumnus Bob McCabe was so taken with the presentation he attended in Florida that he and his wife decided to donate $10,000 to produce a video promoting the SCRC, according to accounts by Murray and Pamela McLaughlin, the library’s director of communications and external relations.

To create the video, the library chose Solon Quinn Studios, a company that has produced content for the SU admissions office and businesses around town.

“They’re wonderful, not your standard kind of company or video,” McLaughlin said of Solon Quinn Studios. “They were so obsessed. They insisted on shooting at night. They didn’t want any exterior light. They were here from 7 p.m. to 2 or 3 in the morning.”

The video was locally cast and shot. It is in its final editing stages and will highlight several of the objects featured on the original cross-country tour, including an Edison cylinder, Malcolm X’s letter from Mecca, Marcel Breuer’s architectural drawings and photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White’s camera.

An early cut of the video had a professional, artistic air and was targeted to a broad audience of undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, alumni and the interested public.      

Following the video’s spring release, library staff said they hope more people will visit, donate to, and research in SCRC. Still, the concept of combing through books and papers could seem old-fashioned to students who would rather browse the Internet for research materials. For Quimby, this makes the SCRC even more essential.

“In a world where information is on a two-dimensional screen, to be able to hold a three-dimensional item is becoming rarer and rarer,” Quimby said. “It allows you to ask questions and answer them in a way you’ll never be able to by looking at a computer screen.

"I think it’s really important to have that tangible experience, particularly for students.”

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