Vassar Today

Sponsoring the Source

By Baize Buzan

With its buttressed walls and crowned towers, the physical presence alone of Thompson Library is enough to take the breath away of any passerby. But behind the Gothic facade of one of Vassar’s most famous buildings lies another awe-inspiring spectacle: the approximately 25,000 books that make up the college’s rare-book collection. Ranging from literature to cookbooks to atlases, Vassar’s rare books date from as early as the fourteenth century to the present. (The collection also includes leaves of manuscripts dating back to the eleventh century, first-century papyrus, and 4,000-year-old Babylonian tablets.) But these artifacts aren’t just slumbering “in the cool comfort of 69 degrees Fahrenheit and 49 percent relative humidity,” as Ron Patkus, associate director of the libraries for special collections and adjunct associate professor of history, wrote in this magazine (“Rare Books and the Vassar Curriculum,” Winter 2004). “Books are meant to be used, and Vassar’s librarians continually look for ways to integrate rare books into the
college curriculum.” But to use a book, of course, means the possibility of wear and tear — and so, in recent years, librarians have wondered how best to bring more attention to the conservation requirements of not just owning rare books, but using them.

With this challenge in mind, Special Collections is launching a new program called Adopt-a-Book in an effort to establish direct support for the conservation of valuable artifacts in need of very specific assistance. Operating as a collaborative effort with alumnae/i, Adopt-a-Book will allow interested alums their choice of title from 25 books and manuscripts that have been selected for repairs. In recognition of their support, a special bookplate in each chosen book will acknowledge its adopters.

Patkus, one of the creators of the Adopt-a-Book program, modeled his idea after similar programs already established at several institutions in both the U.S. and abroad, including the British Library, the Grolier Club, and the Michigan State University Library. The decision to partner exclusively with Vassar’s alumnae/i was, for Patkus, an obvious one: “Alumnae/i have traditionally been great supporters and friends of the libraries,” he notes, “and it was natural for us to turn to them for assistance.”

The elements of the Adopt-a-Book program were established with Vassar’s longstanding ethos of “going to the source” in mind, as it seeks to restore and preserve the very “sources” that make the practice possible. As Patkus points out, such an endeavor is crucial for maintaining this tradition: “One can go so far as to say that if we do not properly conserve our treasures, in a very real way this ‘going to the source’ approach will be threatened.”

Starting this summer, alumnae/i will be able to browse detailed descriptions of the 25 selected books at the Adopt-a-Book website, Patkus is hopeful that all of the inaugural books will find adopters, and that interest will demand another round — preserving the legacy of not only the old volumes themselves, but also the tenets of a Vassar education. To recommit to a “primary sources” teaching philosophy through a “partnership between the libraries and alumnae/i,” Patkus says, “links two key groups in their shared support of students for the future.”

— Baize Buzan ’10

Photo credit: Jim Pape, courtesy of Special Collections, Vassar College Libraries

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