The dangerous world of special collections

In the ongoing series of Things I Learned in Library School, here are the latest, all courtesy of the course on Curatorship of Special Collections I’m taking this term*:

  • Conservators use the term "inherent vice" for those physical characteristics of books that cause them to self-destruct. The standard example is the acid in wood-pulp paper that makes the paper turn yellow and brittle.
  • Early attempts at mass book deacidification didn’t go so well, owing to the fact that diethyl zinc, the gas that the Library of Congress used to deacidify its books, explodes on contact with air. (Oops.)
  • One of my classmates told me the story of the four college students who set out to rob the special collections library at Transylvania University. Disguised as old men, complete with wigs. You can read the full story, as recounted in the court opinion when the students were tried, here. The part that describes how they stunned and tied up the special collections librarian is kind of horrifying, but the rest reads like one for the Least Competent Criminals record books. (The misspelled e-mails to Christie’s offering a rare "first addition" for sale! The plan to carry off the big heavy Audobon books in a bedsheet! The attempt to flee the scene in the staff elevator!)

I knew that special collections librarians had to be wary of theft, but I’d never quite realized that the world of special collections was also one of "inherent vice" and occasional explosions. Throw in a few car chases, and you’ve got the makings of an action movie. Or, if the Transylvania U. case ever makes it to the big screen, a farce.

* Which meets on Wednesday afternoons and let out early today, hence this afternoon’s blogburst.

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