June 17, 2019 | 78° F

Alexander Library is home to an eclectic assortment of rare books and artifacts

In addition to ancient handmade books, the collection includes novels from Mark Twain and Walt Whitman's personal collections

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In addition to ancient handmade books, the collection in the basement of Alexander Library includes literature from the personal collections of Walt Whitman and Mark Twain.

Housed primarily in the basement of Alexander Library, the Rutgers Library Special Collections and University Archives holds a vast assortment of books and other materials that reflect print culture from its beginnings in Europe all the way to present-day New Jersey.

Michael Joseph, the Rare Books librarian at Alexander, normally collects books of practically universal interest and includes contemporary editions of Shakespeare's works, books from the personal collections of Walt Whitman and Mark Twain and early English-language Bibles. 

Currently, Joseph is preparing for the New Jersey Book Arts Symposium, which will be held at Alexander Library on Nov. 3. The symposium has been held every year since 1995. This is its fifth year in New Brunswick and was previously held at John Cotton Dana Library at Rutgers—Newark.

“The symposium originally was going to be on international book arts, and we were gonna draw people from different countries in Europe to talk about European identity in flux,” Joseph said. “This goes back before November (of 2016), and the issue back then was about European identity being changed because of the influx of immigrants, and that seemed to be the issue of the moment and important enough for us to look at in our yearly symposium. But then November came along, and with the deepening political crisis in our country, we sort of modulated into the theme for this year, which is opposition.”

Some of the pieces presented in the symposium can only be loosely categorized as books. "(The pieces reveal) both the elusiveness of books and a kind of naked physical beauty that you see here but you don't see in ordinary books in your backpack,” Joseph said.

Such pieces include a masquerade-style eye mask with a poem printed on pages that turn across the bridge of the nose, made by French artist Béatrice Coron, and a handmade book with artifacts from a beach pasted to the cover, made by New Jersey artist Karen Guancione.

On the cover of the symposium's catalog is a tapestry by artist China Marks whose work is featured in the show. The tapestry has a picture of a painting by 16th-century artist El Greco called "The Holy Trinity," which Joseph said is “reproduced in a cheap xerox style” as a sewing machine collage with contemporary-looking additions like cartoon speech bubbles. The face of El Greco's white, European Jesus is replaced with a black man's, with his eyes covered by cartoon spots and one character's speech bubble says, “They still practice human sacrifice?”

“We didn't pull any punches with this,” Joseph said. “Not to make it a propaganda symposium ... but we certainly had to include and foreground the tensions we all feel, and even in a wishy-washy way take some position against violence, against white supremacists, against violence against women.”

Special Collections also includes the Sinclair New Jersey Collection, which is “the largest, most comprehensive collection of New Jersey materials in the state and one of the finest collections of state and local history in the country,” according to the library's website.

Christie Lutz, the New Jersey Regional Studies librarian, said the oldest items in the collection date to the early 1700s. The collections include books, printed ephemera, photographs, maps, pamphlets and miscellaneous cultural objects.

“We're documenting all of it,” Lutz said.

Historical books and documents from the Sinclair collection have been used as sources for the Scarlet and Black project, which documents Rutgers' connections to slavery. 

Using diaries and business ledgers from the collections, researchers were able to identify a slave named Will who was rented out by his owner Jacob Dunham to build the foundation of Queens College.

The collection contains different kinds of documentation of local culture. There are photos of Albany Street with a tree-lined dirt road with a wooden bridge to Highland Park in the background from the 1870s. There are advertisements, public announcements and flyers, such as an advertisement from 1871 for a photo studio in Long Branch that specializes in horses and carriages.

“We continue to collect this stuff,” Lutz said. “Advertisements in the mail or political flyers, we still collect all of those.”

More recently the library has begun collecting materials from local beer breweries. So far the collection includes labels, bottles and advertisements.

“Craft beer is huge right now, so we thought we would start documenting those,” Lutz said. “We figure a lot of them aren't gonna last. There are just too many. It's just not sustainable.”

Some local companies have sent the library their tap handles, which are changed out as different beers come and go. The librarians created a special packaging with foam cushions to properly preserve those.

“If anybody wanted to write the history of craft beer in New Jersey — which somebody will, I'm pretty sure, at some point, given the kinds of books we have — this will be here,” Lutz said.

Max Marcus

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