Hidden treasures: The amazing artifacts inside UChicago’s library

From a book made of pasta to Lincoln’s pie safe, Special Collections opens rare items to scholars

The Special Collections Research Center might seem rarefied and intimidating, but in reality, you can simply walk through the department’s glass doors and talk to the staff. They want members of the University of Chicago community to know that the rare books, manuscripts and archives held there are open to all. If you’d like to get a peek at a 14th-century illuminated manuscript or pore over documents from the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, you can—just leave your ink and drinks outside the reading rooms.

What’s so special about this corner of the library, found on the first floor of Regenstein Library? More than you can imagine.

But first, a little history: The Library’s story began with that of the University, as one of the five general divisions created by President William Rainey Harper. When doors opened to students in October 1892, the library was located in a hastily erected temporary building, which also housed the student gymnasium and the University press. The collection consisted of about 50,000 volumes from the Old University of Chicago and the Baptist Union Theological Seminary, as well as almost 100,000 books and manuscripts from what became known as the Berlin Collection, making it one of the largest university libraries in the country.

Among that collection were rare books and manuscripts, but it wasn’t until 1953 that Special Collections as a distinct department was formally created. Robert Rosenthal, AM’55, its first curator, held the position until his death in 1989, leaving a legacy of an active and engaged department that supports the scholarship of the University. Students, faculty, staff and non-University-affiliated researchers are welcome to visit and peruse whatever piques their interests. 

The collections encompass 67,000 linear feet (12 miles) of manuscripts and University archives, 345,000 rare books, 1,456 online collection guides, and about 85,000 gigabytes of digital materials. The staff assists thousands of researchers each year, in person and remotely.

The history of science and medicine is a particular strength, recording the work of giants—manuscripts of Sir Isaac Newton and letters Albert Einstein wrote to mathematician Walther Mayer. In the humanities, there are the records of Poetry magazine and its founder, Harriet Monroe; the printed works of Frédéric Chopin; and the Chicago Jazz Archive. Scholars can review the papers of astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, browse the digitized Goodspeed Manuscript Collection or dive into the history of the Chicago school of sociology.

Less well known is the treasure trove of artifacts—often acquired as part of a collection—that lies in the department’s stacks, items as tantalizing as they are unexpected. You could start a band, outfit a dance troupe or have a pickup football game—at least in your imagination. 

—Story first appeared in The University of Chicago Magazine.