Special Collections

The Special Collections archive in Davis Library is home to the College’s most valuable works. It is a huge, often fragile collection of historic documents and texts. One component of the Special Collections is the college archives. This is the home of all the historical documents of the college, over 200 years of Middlebury College history. The team at Collections and Archives strives to capture and preserve primary sources, the raw materials for any potential story. Rebekah Irwin, Director and Curator of the Archive, approaches archival materials with the questions: “Does this serve as a raw document that could be interpreted differently in the future? How might this tell the story of Middlebury College?” Documents within the college archive range from the School’s Charter to Twitter feeds chronicling the Charles Murray protest in 2017.

Irwin remarked on the Archive’s increasing documentation of social media, as this is where much information is now stored. The goal, though, remains the same: to collect the raw materials for future history. As fewer documents today exist only in hard copy, the diversity of media represented in the archives is expanding. While constantly acquiring new documents, Special Collections simultaneously preserves older material, a task that sometimes requires further study. Irwin recently took a class on paleography, the study of handwriting, in order to better analyze and document historic handwriting. The elimination of cursive in current elementary school curriculums has created a new challenge for students interpreting historical texts, even those written English. Ultimately, the Special Collections and Archives team strives to help students interpret historical works. They document and explain how something is made, be it through photography, film, sound, or writing, and its significance at the given time. Armed with information, the student may critically analyze the work.

The second aspect of the Special Collections and Archives is the rare books collection. This archive encompasses the history of the written word from the earliest captured writings to many modern additions, and notably includes the first 10,000 books of the Middlebury College collection. Here one may see what the curriculum was for a Middlebury student in the college’s early years. Based on the texts around which their curriculum was based, one understands how Middlebury shaped the thoughts of its earliest students. The Special Collections team will often bring in current Middlebury professors to help build teaching collections for particular subjects, and utilizes professors from an array of departments in order to better understand a topic or document.

The Archive possesses an incredible array of documents from which to learn. One may examine a rare 19th century miniature Qur’an manuscript from Ottoman Turkey, or the Sidereus Nuncius, or Starry Messenger, by Galileo Galilei, a short astronomical treatise was the first published scientific work based on observations made through a telescope. Essays on the Microscope by George Adams is number 24 of Middlebury College’s first 10,000 founding books and is the oldest surviving book from the Library’s original collection. Clearly, there is a great deal to study and enjoy at the Special Collections and College Archives.