The Specialness of Special Collections: Remarks on the Dedication of the Rubenstein Library

The following remarks were delivered by Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard University and Lincoln Professor of History, at the dedication ceremony of the renovated David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, on October 3, 2015. They are reprinted with her permission. A video of the complete ceremony appears above.

I am so honored to be here and to say a few words about the specialness of special collections and the specialness of this collection in particular. I regard rare book and manuscript libraries as sacred spaces—spaces of transcendence where we reach beyond ourselves in the effort to discover and understand other places and other times. Now, those who use the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library will be able to do so in a physical space that does not just enable but uplifts that effort. What a rare and precious gift—it’s a gift that will enhance collections that have supported scholarship and teaching for many decades. Thank you very much, David.

These collections have in fact supported my scholarship. For thirty-five years now, a large blue volume—two inches thick, weighing in at 5 pounds, 2 ounces—has stood on a bookshelf near my desk. Gold letters on its scarred blue-cloth cover read: Guide to the Catalogued Collections in the Manuscript Department of the William R. Perkins Library, Duke University, Richard C. Davis and Linda Angle Miller, Editors. I have treasured this book. It is filled with penciled notations made next to names of collections I wanted to explore, and I scribbled lists on the book’s endpapers of highest-priority collection titles and catalogue numbers. Now, this volume is a curious and obsolete artifact—first because of the many materials that have been accessioned since it was printed, but more fundamentally, of course, because the catalogue of holdings of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library are online for anyone anywhere in the world to see.

Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust
Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust

Duke’s special collections department was one of the first I visited when I embarked on my dissertation research in the early 1970s—almost a decade before the invaluable blue volume appeared. I set forth knowing some of what I would find in Duke’s holdings, but the state of bibliographic and search tools in that distant era provided me with nothing like a complete or comprehensive view. So part of the wonder and excitement of this first real “research trip” was that I was an adventurer, an explorer setting out on a search for the past not knowing precisely what I would find. The knowledge and help of manuscript librarians would be critical, but I also knew from other historians that at Duke I would find a card catalogue unsurpassed in its detail about what each manuscript collection contained. There would be not just names but subject headings and cross references that would make searching the catalogue more efficient and far more productive. A researcher’s dream. Duke held materials indispensable to my dissertation project. I spent many days at a table here, with documents arrayed before me, as I sought to understand pre-Civil War southerners who had chosen to become active defenders of slavery—advocates of what we today would find unthinkable.

In the years after I completed that study, as I began to shift the focus of my interest from the antebellum period to the Civil War itself, the Duke collections became in many ways even more significant for my work. The very first collection listed in the large blue book is the William Abbott Papers, just a few items documenting damage done to Abbott’s Virginia property by Confederate troops in 1862; the last listing in the volume, collection number 5991, 648 pages later, is the diary of a Pennsylvania soldier who served as a wagon driver in Sherman’s March to the Sea. Civil War material doesn’t just bookend the old catalogue; it abounds in these collections. Many of the war’s most famous names are present here: Alexander Stephens, Confederate Vice President with a collection of some 3,000 items; the Stonewall Jackson Papers, 4,700 items. But this library houses Civil War materials of a somewhat different character as well, materials that enabled me, and many others as well, to pursue new directions in Civil War history. Duke’s librarians had been very foresighted in acquiring the records not just of generals and statesmen, the Jacksons and Stephens, but of ordinary people—that farmer in Virginia, that wagon driver from Pennsylvania. These were the men and women whose lives and experiences would become the foundation of a new approach to the war that began to emerge in the 1980s. As Civil War history began to turn towards exploring the social as well as political and military history of the war, as scholars sought materials to document the lives of women or of common soldiers, or to describe the wartime experience of slavery and liberation, Duke’s collections could offer remarkable riches. For me, as I wrote a book about women and then another about death, Duke manuscripts proved invaluable. I discovered Lila Chunn of Georgia, who in moving and eloquent letters corresponded with her husband Willie at the front about her fears of staying alone without him, about her distress as war rendered her a refugee, about her desperate hope that he could get a furlough and be with her as she delivered their child. Another collection described for me the sad tale of Margaret Gwyn, unable to afford mourning attire after her son’s death in the army in 1862. She recounts in her diary how she dyed old clothes black so she could display the depth of her grief. As she worked, she explained, “my eyes was often filled with tears which is a relief to the troubled mind.”

The ceremony took place in the Gothic Reading Room.
The ceremony took place in the Gothic Reading Room.

Documents like these enable historians to enter into conversation with people of another era, to see a different world and to look through others’ eyes—eyes sometimes filled with tears. If we are to understand what makes a society go to war and stay at war, we must understand the homefront as well as the battlefront, the soldiers who follow orders as well as the generals who issue them. The Civil War looks different to us now than it did a generation ago, and the kinds of collecting Duke’s librarians so wisely pursued is an important part of what has made that possible. Special collections librarians are people who must predict the future—must make guesses and bets about what will be of interest to students and scholars decades—even centuries—from now. They must look forward to look back and decide what to preserve as the record of our lives. They and the choices they make, the collections they create and preserve, become our history. Do you want to make history? Become a librarian!

I have always thought that the textured record of human life represented in the letters of Lila Chunn or the diary of Margaret Gwyn tells a far more powerful and engaging story than any novel possibly could. And I must also confess to a bit of the antiquarian in me as well: I never cease to be awestruck by the knowledge that a page lying before me once was delivered to a Confederate camp, was carried in a knapsack or a bedroll and was purposefully saved to be passed onto us—a voice from the past projected into the future from individuals who wanted us to know what they had lived through. As Emily Dickinson has written in a marvelous poem about antique books, their “presence is enchantment.” These books and manuscripts become the magical vehicles of time travel, transporting us into worlds at once old and new.

It is, of course, an undeniable blessing that now many of the rare or unique materials housed here have been digitized, and made widely accessible. But it seems highly unlikely that the entire manuscript record of the past will ever be digitized. The David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library contains 350,000 printed volumes and 20 million manuscript and archival items. And I must confess that I think the convenience of digital access to these materials comes at a cost—the cost, we might say, of enchantment. Like Emily Dickinson, I cannot resist the magic of the real thing—whether it is a letter from Lila Chunn, or the Bay Psalm Book or the Magna Carta. These artifacts matter because their words and ideas have relevance for our contemporary lives, but they matter too as actual physical and material embodiment of a past that still shapes us. They constitute a bridge between what was and what is—a bridge they invite us to cross.

So far, I have been speaking about what has engaged me over many years in the collections of the Rubenstein Library. But Southern and Civil War history make up just a portion of what this repository holds, and students and scholars interested in many other times, places and subjects could tell similar stories of discovery and changed understanding. The visionary collecting and foresight of Duke’s librarians are evident throughout the larger whole. So many subjects vital to our perceptions of the world today are represented in these collections—from advertising and popular culture to human rights and fundamental questions of race, gender and sexuality. From the original Mad Men of the J. Walter Thompson Company, to comic superheroes, straight and openly gay, to utopias and dystopias, to 1,800 Egyptian Papyri texts, to Virginia Woolf’s desk—part of an extraordinary recent acquisition in women’s history. This library is a stunning resource for Duke students and faculty and for the world.


As a token of appreciation, David M. Rubenstein presented President Faust with a rare first edition set of Francis Trevelyan Miller's ten-volume Photographic History of the Civil War.
As a token of appreciation, David M. Rubenstein presented President Faust with a rare first edition set of Francis Trevelyan Miller’s ten-volume Photographic History of the Civil War.

Today we celebrate a beautiful new home for these treasures, a place designed at once to protect them and to share them, to preserve them for the future and to make them readily accessible to the present. And all this has been made possible by someone who believes fervently in books and reads them voraciously, who believes just as fervently in philanthropy, and, I think it is safe to say, embraces and wants to share the enchantment of the real thing—of the Bay Psalm Book he purchased and has placed on exhibition here, of the Emancipation Proclamation he has loaned to hang in the Oval Office, of the Magna Carta he acquired to display at the National Archives. And clearly he venerates the institutions that care for these treasures as he has shown in his support not just for this library but for the National Archives, the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress—as well as for numerous universities—including my own—and museums and historic buildings and monuments. David Rubenstein is himself, as others have said before me, a national treasure, and thanks are due to this library and this university for all it did to make him so, through the education it provided him and the job in the library that helped to support him while he was here.

Emily Dickinson wrote that she found it “a precious, mouldering pleasure” and “a privilege” to meet an antique book. It has been a pleasure and a privilege for so many of us—students and scholars—to meet these collections—these books and manuscripts—over the years. So I am grateful to be able—more than four decades after my first visit—to say a public thank you. Thank you to Duke University, to its imaginative and knowledgeable librarians, and to David Rubenstein, who has ensured that generationsof students and scholars to come have the opportunity to be enchanted and enlightened by the preservation of the record of human thought, experience, and aspiration.