Special Collections and the University of Washington Libraries

by Gary Menges, Head, Special Collections and Preservation Division


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[Pen and watercolor drawing]
  "Natives of Unalaska in their kayaks." Pen and watercolor drawing signed and dated by John Webber, 1778. Webber accompanied Cook on his third voyage. University of Washington Libraries Special Collections. Gift of Edward W. Allen, 1968.

The Libraries' Special Collections and Preservation Division in the Allen Library offers access to unique, scarce, and rare published and graphic materials providing opportunities for studying items of scholarly interest in context. The origin of what is now Special Collections can be traced to a call by Librarian H. C. Coffman in 1905 for "everything relating to Washington." From this developed the Pacific Northwest Collection, one of the most comprehensive collections on the Pacific Northwest and Alaska in existence.

The growth of Special Collections has been fostered by many librarians and faculty members. In 1908, for example, the Regents Record noted the receipt of a letter from Professor Edmond S. Meany saying that "twenty gentlemen" had subscribed $50,000 "to enable Mr. Ed S. Curtis to defray the expenses of publishing the first volumes of his monumental work on the North American Indians" and that "Mr.Curtis, out of gratitude for such help, had agreed to present a set of the work…to the Library of the University in the names of the twenty friends." This set is now housed in Special Collections.

Published accounts of travel and exploration to all parts of the world have always been a strength of Special Collections. Many of these holdings document early exploration of the Northwest, Western Canada, and Alaska. Illustrated here is the first edition of Meriwether Lewis's history of the Lewis and Clark expedition, published in Philadelphia in 1814. This set was donated by Elisabeth C. Miller in 1989. The pen and watercolor drawings of "Natives of Unalaska in Their Kayaks," by John Webber, was done in 1778 and presented to the Libraries by Edward W. Allen in 1968. Weber accompanied Captain Cook on his third voyage. Allen donations also included a Cook collection, maps, American atlases, and a large collection on the voyages of French explorer Jean-Francois de Galaup, Comte de La Perouse.

[15th century manuscript]
15th century Dutch or French manuscript in Latin. Manuscript 64, University of Washington Libraries Special Collections.

Professor Edward Godfrey Cox, Professor of English at the University of Washington from 1911 until his retirement in 1947, compiled "A Reference Guide to the Literature of Travel," published in three volumes at the University of Washington between 1934-1949. Professor Cox died in 1963 and bequeathed his large travel collection to the Libraries. His collection included journals of travels in Europe and other areas.

Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts in Special Collections include those donated by Judge Walter Beals and those collected by William E. Henry, founder of what became the University of Washington Graduate School of Library and Information Science. Professor Henry endowed a history-of-the-book collection which is now housed in Special Collections. Interest in the history of the book led to the establishment of the Book Arts Collection, which reflects the diversity of choices that define the book, from fine printing to one-of-a-kind artists' books.

Literary collections in Special Collections also reflect the scholarly interests of faculty — for example, sixteenth-century Italian plays collected for the late Frederick Morgan Padelford of the English department. Other collections include a collection of children's literature and one of Northwest poets, and author collections such as those for Hans Christian Anderson, William Blake, Charles Dickens, and William Butler Yeats.

One of the most important collections is the Andrew and Frances Hilen Nineteeth Century Americana Collection. This was established and endowed by Professor and Mrs. Hilen and is a rich resource for the study of American literature and history, children's literature, women's studies, the study of the anti-slavery movement, and the history of the 19th-century book. The late Professor Hilen served on the English faculty from 1944 to his retirement in 1975. Among his scholarly achievements was the editing of the letters of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published by the Harvard University Press.

Among the other collections of interest to those in the humanities and fine arts are large collections of documentary photographs and architectural drawings. The photograph collection is particularly strong for Western Washington, Alaska, and the Yukon. The architectural drawings collection began in 1963 with the donation of architectural drawings for Seattle's Pioneer Building by the late Professor Victor Steinbrueck and the late architect Paul Hayden Kirk and documents the work of architects active in the Puget Sound region. Works of both Steinbrueck and Kirk are in the collection. Maps range from 16th century world maps to nineeteenth and early twentieth century Pacific Northwest maps and birdseye views.

University of Washington faculty have contributed in many ways to the development of Special Collections, as they have to the University Libraries as a whole. These collaborations between faculty and librarians continue to flourish and contribute to the teaching and scholarship in the arts and humanities at the University of Washington.

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