Treasures of the SMU Libraries

The stone steps of Fondren’s original main entrance now lead the way to the DeGolyer Library Special Collections.Photo credit: Avery Stefan.


From the 1493 Christopher Columbus Letter, to the original copy of the only book Leonardo da Vinci ever illustrated, SMU libraries house some of the world’s greatest artifacts and literary treasures. In fact, unbeknownst to many students and faculty, these museum-library hybrids are free and open to the public, with knowledgeable librarians and curators eager to walk visitors through the impressive collections.

Eric White, Curator of Special Collections at Bridwell Library, is adamant that the SMU libraries and their resources are something to be taken advantage of.

“This is an exclusive university, and the libraries are a treasure,” White said. “There’s this somewhat hidden intellectual wealth in the libraries that you can’t get at other places.”

SMU is celebrating the “Year of the Library” this year, in honor of the 100th anniversary of SMU’s first library, founded in Dallas Hall in 1913. The commemoration is meant to raise the profile of the libraries’ compelling archives, and showcase their priceless collections.

Here are the highlights of their many treasures and secrets of the SMU libraries.

DeGolyer Library

Walk up the grand stone steps facing the main quad on campus next to Hughes-Trigg Student Center and students will find themselves looking up at the original entrance to Fondren Library, the name indefinitely carved into the stone overhang. But this is actually the DeGolyer Library.

Here, visitors can gaze upon Christopher Columbus’ letter from 1493 detailing his discoveries, or the first edition of Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.”

Since its nascence in 1913, beginning with the private collections of Everette L. DeGolyer Sr., a major figure in the 20th century oil business, the library has grown each year through private donations, gifts and purchases of valuable historical archives. In conjunction with the library’s strengths in the humanities, business history, and the history of science and technology, the current exhibit, “Treasures of the DeGolyer Library: 100 Years of Collecting,” highlights various subjects from Voyages and Travels to the University Archives.

The main room in this exhibit, which happens to be the main and only common room of the library itself, is filled with old books and photographs, each of historical importance. Students do not expect to come across a special collections library possessing 120,000 rare and historically significant printed books, over 2,500 separate manuscript collections, about 700,000 photographs, approximately 3,000 early maps, roughly 2,000 periodical and newspaper titles, and a sizable collection of printed ephemera.

There is also a Texana room down a level, which boasts the only known copy of an original wall map of Dallas from 1891. Throughout DeGolyer Library, the temperature must be controlled at approximately 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and the humidity kept between 50 and 60 degrees to preserve the value of the various collections.

Russell Martin, the director of DeGolyer Library, said that it is fairly common that these impressive resources are used more often by visiting scholars than by SMU students.

“We encourage students to come in and tour the exhibit,” Martin said. “We’ve got some great things.”

According to Operations Manager Terre Heydari, part of why students do not take advantage of what DeGolyer Library has to offer is simply due to a lack of awareness.

“A lot of students don’t know about all the great collections we have available for them,” Heydari said.

Cyrus Mansoori, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering and economics who works at the library agreed.

“There are a lot of resources out there,” Mansoori said. “I think maybe students are not aware in totality of what we have to offer at SMU.”

Although the content of the DeGolyer Library is considered fairly specialized, Martin believes that there are many different disciplines that can find valuable information in its archives. Unlike Fondren Library, the materials do not circulate, but the small staff of librarians is glad to pull relevant resources for students and guide them through their research.

“I think I’ve got one of the best jobs in the world,” Martin said. “I’m surrounded by rare, fascinating materials, and I’m able to add to the collection and help make it accessible to scholars and students. You can’t beat that.”

Bridwell Library

Tucked away between Perkins Chapel and Smith and Perkins residence halls, Bridwell Library is a hidden gem on campus. Unknown to most students who do not live directly behind it or who are not theology students, this Georgian building erected in 1951 offers a quiet study environment with a homey feel — one could almost call it charming. Part of what lends itself to the relaxed atmosphere is the decor. Big, squishy leather sofa chairs fill the modestly sized reading rooms, large framed paintings adorn the walls and various pieces of art and objects are carefully placed throughout, just as they might be in
someone’s home.

Past the walls of shelved books and rooms of long, dark wooden tables topped with classic green library lamps, however, Bridwell Library begins to transform into a museum. Glass display stands showcase celebrated pieces from its rare book collection that are changed out every few months in an effort to touch upon the thousands of literary archives that fill the library’s extensive vault of treasures.

The current exhibit at Bridwell Library is entitled “Fifty Women” and features over 50 books that were written, produced, owned or inspired by prominent female figures in history from the past six centuries. Other treasures of Bridwell include books of the Reformation period from the early 16th century, as well as Methodist publications and letters, including 139 letters from the founder of the Methodist movement himself, John Wesley.

Although Bridwell is a rare book library primarily for theologians, White described the collection as “an outstanding rare book library for not just the community, but also the world.”

Illuminated manuscripts, which are hand crafted books detailed with gold, are some of the treasures that get the most attention at Bridwell, including from art historians and music historians. Researchers come to study such pieces for their historical, artistic and academic value.

Most of the library’s collections of manuscripts and printed books are from before 1800, but a few exceptions can be found, including original 20th century books illustrated by the famous artists Matisse and Picasso. Students can also follow the history of book making and the archaeology of writing through carved hieroglyphics from Egypt and various tablets and papyrus fragments.

Bridwell Library has 1,000 books from the 15th century alone, which are more books than most 15th century libraries have. Bridwell’s strong collection of early printing began from one private collection of 200 15th century books purchased by Joseph Bridwell in the mid-1900s. The curators continue to purchase roughly 10 or 20 rare books every year since then.

“Are we utilized efficiently by anyone? No,” White said. “I would say I would like to see many more people appreciate the authenticity of the original artifacts from the past.”

Hamon Arts Library

The Jake and Nancy Hamon Arts Library, founded in 1990, is the art and music circulating library on campus. Located behind the Meadows School of the Arts, the architecturally compelling brick rotunda is frequented by Meadows students studying on their breaks or conducting research for various assignments. However, students rarely venture to the second floor of Hamon to explore the cornucopia of unique treasures housed in the Bywaters Special Collections vault.

The special collections area of the library is named after Jerry Bywaters, a regionalist artist in Dallas in the 1930s. In addition to some of his original paintings, the vault houses paintings from the University Art Collection, props from historical theater productions such as the chair from the set of the 1936 MGM production of “Romeo and Juliet” and artifacts from around the world, including the first edition of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

In honor of the “Year of the Library” at SMU, a book called “100 Treasures from the SMU Libraries” is set to come out soon, and will feature approximately 25 materials from the Hamon Arts Library.

Among the collection’s proudest possessions are the rare seventh to ninth century Japanese Gigaku masks that were rediscovered in the fall of 2005 by an anthropology major at the time, Emily Grubbs. There are only 250 Gigaku masks in the world, and there are less than 20 outside of Japan, two of which belong to the Hamon Arts Library. The Gigaku masks in Bywaters Special Collections were originally mislabeled as Mexican 19th century masks, and are currently on loan at the Dallas Museum of Art for their ongoing exhibition, “Items of the Silk Road.”

Head of Bywaters Special Collections Sam Ratcliffe, encourages students to utilize the resources available to them and to capitalize on the opportunity to learn from original works.

“Don’t just rely on the Internet,” Ratcliffe said. “What you see on the screen is the end of a very long process, and we have lots of collections that can be used for research that aren’t even on the Internet.”

Curator of Bywaters Special Collections Ellen Niewyk, also believes that students could truly benefit from the wealth of information and historically relevant pieces in Hamon.

“It’s just full of treasures,” she said.

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