Memorial Library’s Special Collections department showcases new exhibit and much more

July 19, 2012

by Kylie Peterson

A new exhibit, "Expanding the Home Circle: An Exhibit of Artists' Books Paired with Illustrated Books 
from the Cairns Collection of American Women Writers," has been installed in Memorial Library's Special Collections department. The exhibit, on display until Sept. 14, was created and curated by UW-Madison art department alumna Rachel Melis.

"This current exhibit focuses on American women writers, and features the work of Melis, a contemporary book artist, who took inspiration from the Cairns Collection," says Curator of Special Collections Robin Rider.

Authors represented in the exhibit include Lydia Maria Child, Abby Morton Diaz, Eliza Farnham, Margaret Fuller, Caroline Kirkland, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frances Elizabeth Willard and many others. The Cairns Collection, is supported by an endowment from the estate of William B. Cairns, who taught in the UW-Madison English department. A copy of Melis' new book, "Unsexed & Unsphered, Volume 1: A Chapter from A New Home-Who'll Follow & An Essay from A Book for the Home Circle by Mrs. Caroline Kirkland with a Preface by the Artist Ms. Rachel L. Melis," featuring letterpress-printed type and copper engravings, is also on display.

The Department of Special Collections offers three or four exhibits per year, supplemented by online exhibits and slideshows, all highlighting rare books and manuscripts on a variety of topics and from multiple time periods.

Special Collections is also home to many of UW-Madison's rare books and manuscripts.

"There are many criteria for categorizing books as 'rare,'" Rider says. "Works published before 1801 automatically comes to Special Collections," Rider says. "But our most heavily used collection is the Little Magazines Collection. It has runs of more than 7,000 experimental English-language literary magazines from the 20th and 21st centuries, and includes literary works not found in most other academic libraries."

Key to ensuring the long-term survival of such materials is housing the books and manuscripts in an area with careful environmental controls and consistent temperature and humidity, Rider explains. Titles in Special Collections do not circulate, and are instead used in a supervised reading room.

"Students should know that Special Collections is available for anyone to use; researchers come not just from UW-Madison, but from all over the country and abroad to use our collections," Rider says. "We are always happy to help people find what they're looking for."

The Department of Special Collections, on the ninth floor of Memorial Library, is open weekdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.