Among society's expectations for the modern research university is that its libraries provide just about every fact known to man and woman--not just current scientific data and historical records, but obscure minutiae like how to authenticate lace from a 19th century train seat.
The U's Marriott Library, in particular, has transmogrified into the campus incarnation of "Ask Mr. Language Person," with supplementary expertise in all things collectible. Knowing that the reference desk is the entry point for further study, fastidious library staff members help sift through mountains of information with attentiveness and pride.
"We try to put our personal and professional connections to the best use to help the patrons, which of course is why we're here. That and the cool stuff," observes Roy Webb BA'84 MS'91, a river buff and multimedia specialist at Marriott Library.
This issue of Continuum goes beyond exploring the University's role as community archivist, though. The expedition began with books pre-dating the printing press (hand painted pages made from sheepskin no less), which led to inquiries about the multifarious artifacts the library handles--with or without the cotton gloves that preservationists wear. Diaries, autobiographies, letters, business and personal histories all are catalogued for public access, whether for examination by a scholarly Italian inquirer or a budding genealogist from Panguitch.
Multimedia archivists help patrons acquire prints, slides, digital scans, or sound recordings of any item in the 1,600 documentary collections in the manuscripts division. Whether clients are searching for taped interviews of crusty old cow hands, pictures of renegades with handlebar mustaches, or sound recordings of Captain George Eyeston's 1938 attempt to break the land speed record in his bullet car on the Bonneville Salt Flats, the Marriott has the full Monty. And, it doesn't keep its assets under wraps, either.
Attendees of a recent Continuum Conversation thumbed through treasures from the collection ranging from medieval illuminated manuscripts to modern finepress and handcrafted artist books. These rare and valuable gems are placed on display periodically for small groups. Though, if Rare Books Curator Madelyn Garrett BA'82 MA'90 had her way, parts of the collection would be perpetually exhibited. Beginning on page 24 writer Shawn Anderson explores the breadth of the Marriott's holdings, and the efforts to make them more widely accessible.
A chance encounter with a patron who had traveled from Wyoming to receive complimentary consultation on restoring and preserving her family's sentimental treasures uncovered for me another aspect of the library's manifold duties. Visitors frequently need help conserving scrapbooks, photo albums, artwork, heirloom wedding dresses, and flags. "For a long time we were the only library in the Salt Lake Valley that had a conservation facility and had that expertise on staff," observes manuscripts and paper conservator Linda Fagen. "Somehow, the word just got out." Marriott Library employees assist customers with their requests by providing preservation information and referrals to reputable commercial conservators. Its own conservation laboratory was established in 1977 to care for the Marriott collections.
In keeping with the University's mission to prepare students to become effective citizens, to succeed in their chosen careers, and to become lifelong learners, the U's librarians seek to help individuals develop the ability to select, analyze, and evaluate information for any purpose. Libraries are the preeminent source of the scholarly information that keeps alive the exchange of ideas so crucial to teaching, learning, and research.
The demands on University libraries appear limitless given our emotional drive to answer new questions. If anything, new technologies are whetting society's appetite for more and better information. That's quite a craving to satisfy. Marilyn vos Savant, the Parade magazine columnist listed in the Guinness Book of World Records Hall of Fame for "Highest IQ" says that if we continually broaden our abilities, extending our intellectual reach and becoming increasingly desirable in the world, we'll be more romantically intriguing. It's unclear how being a genius qualifies vos Savant to comment on sex appeal, but she was smart enough to marry a U grad (artificial heart inventor Robert Jarvik MD'76), so we'll take her word for it.
The intrigue of lifelong learning, she says, is "like a great metropolis or an expanding universe"--unknowable. The bad news, also according to the world's smartest person, is that relatively few of us will find the time or take it to live an ever-enlarging life.
--Anne Palmer Peterson is editor of Continuum Magazine.
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