Autographed Mein Kampf and cuneiform markers among Norlin special collections
White-gloved hands gingerly touch the paper as they turn the page. It’s a quiet room, reverent, filled with paper, animal skin and a jar of pencils that serve as a reminder that pens of any sort are strictly forbidden.
A black and yellow sign says, “For the courtesy of others, please limit your joyous outbursts during business hours.” It’s a difficult task for those exploring little bits of history dating as far back as 4,000 years ago.
A student approaches eager to share her excitement from studying a photographer’s work.
“I’m glad you like her,” said Debbie Hollis, who has worked in the University of Colorado’s library system since 1993.
Hollis has worked in the rare books department for seven years, managing the collection and directing the small staff that accompanies her.
“It’s a chance to shape history for the future,” Hollis said.
In the back room, locked off from the general public’s wanderings, Kris McCusker flies through the shelves stacked high with boxes, books and centuries-old paper preserved behind plates of glass. McCusker has spent 27 years acquainting herself with the written works contained at CU’s main library.
Seventeen of those years within special collections, she said.
“This is our most notorious piece,” she said, pulling a copy of Mein Kampf signed by Adolf Hitler from the top of one shelf in a dimly lit corner of the stacks. To ensure the increased longevity of the collections, lights are kept off whenever no one is around and the room temperature is strictly controlled.
“Haunting” is a word McCusker uses to describe a document from the 1850’s- a notice of sale for a 9-year-old slave girl. Another letter, a land deed dated in 1848, chronicles a transaction between three different couples, including Abraham and Mary Lincoln.
“For something to come here, it needs to be pretty rare,” McCusker said. She unwrapped a small clay tablet with small indentations pressed into it. This cuneiform marker was used back in 2000 B.C. as a receipt of sale. After its initial use, the clay could then be manipulated and used again.
“We ask that people hold it no higher than this,” she said, indicating a height about 6 inches above the table.
Reason might suggest a collection containing so many rare and valuable pieces would be strictly off-limits to public contact. But the staff here prefers just the opposite.
“These things don’t do any good locked up in the dark,” McCusker said.
Out in the main reading room, a student walked in and requested an item. McCusker asked for a photo I.D. and handed to him a reader registration card. After that, the student was welcome to view and study any material. The same is true for anyone who visits special collections. A visitor doesn’t have to be affiliated with CU in any way. Like the student, any guest must simply provide I.D. and a few minutes to fill out the registration card.
“This is a repository for social history and the collective memory,” Hollis said.
For most of the collection, the staff asks that the white, cotton gloves be laid aside. Though it may seem counterintuitive, it is only for the newer materials from the more recent decades that gloves are necessary.
“20th century material is cheaply made,” Hollis said.
The volumes made of parchment and animal skin (as early books were often made of ) are much stronger and far more durable. Hollis rolls out an example of contemporary animal skin, thinned to page standards that the staff uses during class demonstrations.
“Our goal is to make everything accessible and interactive,” she said.
Michelle Falke sits in an office that looks like it might have been a supply closet in another life. Officially, she is the instruction librarian for special collections. When a professor or teacher wishes to bring his or her class to the rare books department, Falke helps put together a presentation.
“I try to pick things that will make a connection. Something that is unique or different,” Falke said.
“We try to provide a tactile experience.”
It is the goal of the staff at special collections to increase awareness of the department using the same principle. Only 50 percent of the collection has been catalogued online, the rest is still contained within another sort of rare specimen – the card catalogue.
“If you catalogue it, they will come,” Hollis said.
In the meantime, the staff here will continue to find joy in the history they interact with on a daily basis.
Back in the stacks, McCusker meets a student worker and asks her what her favorite item is among the folds. The student’s face lights up as she relates the finding of a letter she stumbled upon earlier that week from the 1800’s. It was from one woman to another, and contained news of a flirtatious interlude one of them had experienced with a gentleman caller.
“It’s hard to pinpoint what my favorite thing is in here,” McCusker said. “It changes everyday.”