A. Curricular/Research/Programmatic Needs
The Rare Book Collection supports the instruction and research needs of MSU students, faculty, and staff across all disciplines and all levels. In addition to supporting these needs across the university, the collection also supports those visiting scholars and members of the general public who find in the Rare Book Collection material of interest. While the collection encourages use from all disciplines on campus, instructors and researchers in the humanities and social sciences—particularly English, History, and Art—most frequently draw on these materials for support. That said, the Rare Book Collection does find occasional audiences with the hard sciences, Veterinary Medicine being one example.
The Rare Book Collection is the primary stop on campus for any class or individual exploring the book arts or the history of the book. The Residential College of the Arts and Humanities (RCAH) offers a Book Arts Concentration, students and faculty of which make frequent use of the artists’ books and fine press editions. The cookery and diet collection is widely used by those with an interest in culinary history. Classes on early European history and literature visit regularly, allowing students to work with original editions that help to contextualize the period being studied. Shakespeare and early English material see especially high levels of use. Between class visits and follow-up assignments, many rare books are used by dozens of students, semester after semester, year after year.
Beyond research and instructional support, the rare books comprise a powerful outreach tool and are frequently used as such. Whether through exhibitions, the use of images for university products, or displays for fundraising events, the Rare Book Collection plays a vital and growing role in spreading the vision and reputation of the MSU Libraries, and so of Michigan State University generally.
B. History of the Collection/Existing Strengths and Emphases
The Rare Book Collection is housed in Special Collections, which was formalized as a department in 1962. The deliberate collecting of rare books, however, began two decades earlier. Organized in 1943, the Friends of the Library immediately began purchasing rare books with donated funds and encouraged alumni to give significant books or collections to the MSU Libraries. Such donor activity was—and remains—a critical component in developing the Rare Book Collection. The MSU community is greatly indebted to Henry Koch and Anne Tracy, who were the first MSU librarians to actively pursue rare materials and laid the foundation for many of our collecting strengths. Likewise, the important roles that Robert Runser, Jeanette Fiore, and Ronald Wilkinson played in the development of the collection mustn’t be underestimated.
Befitting its broad mission of curriculum support, the Rare Book Collection contains material in countless subject areas. Formats range from an ancient clay tablet to contemporary artists’ books, including a wide selection of the early manuscripts and printed books typically associated with rare book collections. Both through purchase and donation, as individual items and as collections, rare books have been acquired from sources around the globe.
After more than seventy years of concerted collecting, some of MSU’s most distinguished rare book collections are in fields as diverse as veterinary medicine, cooking (see Cookbook CD Policy), and fencing. We have significant holdings in the fields of agriculture, horticulture, landscape architecture, botany, gardening, ornithology, entomology, apiculture, and herbals, as well as the French monarchy, criminology, the Italian Risorgimento, 18th-century British culture, and early American schoolbooks. Notable collections of literary first editions include the Irish Literary Renaissance, select American expatriate writers of the 20th century, and the work of Jorge Luis Borges. There is a very strong Michigan Writers Collection, too, including the works of Richard Ford, Diane Wakoski, Thomas McGuane, and Jim Harrison. More complete collection information can be found on the website of MSU Special Collections.
Finally, there is no predicting what our teaching and research priorities will be decades from now. We collect for the present as much as for posterity—a careful balance—and the Rare Book Collection must be open to adapting to evolving needs.