Special Collections home to ancient astronomy artifacts

by Caitlin Johnson

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03_06_13_Features_SpecialCollections3_CJ Texts can often be a form of time travel. A good book can cause the world around us to fall away as readers are transported to another reality. They are realms of infinite possibility, limited only by imagination. We explore, sifting through countless tales of adventure, romance and our own histories. Holding a book means holding the very foundation of our existence in our hands.

The importance of sharing this knowledge and passing it on to forthcoming generations is crucial. Appreciation of this concept is necessary for the preservation of such materials. Fortunately, efforts have already been made at San Diego State to ensure our past will remain for our future.

Nestled in a quiet room on the fourth floor of SDSU’s Infodome, the Department of Special Collections and University Archives holds some of the greatest written works of our time. First editions of many revolutionary publications, including Nicolaus Copernicus’ “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” and Sir Isaac Newton’s “Principia,” are currently on display for viewing pleasure.

Upon entering the Special Collections room, visitors are greeted by towering bookshelves and shimmering display cases filled to the brim with testaments of human history. Walking among the collection is like taking a step back in time. There is something immensely humbling about brushing the worn cover of a book from the 17th century, knowing some of the world’s greatest minds once pored over its pages. These works provide a glimpse into the past and experience the extent of their impact on the present.03_06_13_Features_SpecialCollections2_CJ

More than 70,000 printed volumes of significant works are meticulously managed by staff. Displays are not limited to books, however. Contents of the exhibits also include photographs, films, manuscripts and other archival collections from all across the world. Much of SDSU’s history can be found here as well.

There is a different type of deep, spiritual learning that can only be acquired through personal interactions. Special Collections Division Head Robert Ray emphasized the importance of the opportunity to browse the collections, especially for students.

“These are originals we can feel and touch,” Ray said. “Something happens when you’re in their presence—it’s a very freeing experience.”

Everyone is encouraged to spend time looking through the archives. The staff generally operates on an “ask and you shall receive” attitude. Curiosity is rewarded and as Ray suggested, some of the best learning experiences take place outside of a lecture hall.

The Reading Room is designed to accomodate students. Rows of tables once found in the school’s original library encourage adventurers to spread out. Scanners and printers are also available for use. Plush chairs situated beneath a large, colorful atlas invite readers to stay. While the archives tend to be especially useful for graduate students, there’s no reason everyone shouldn’t enjoy them.

The acquisition of this prestigious collection is a feat that has been years in the making, Ray said. He said much of the success of receiving content comes from a bit of luck and being in the right place at the right time. Donors often contribute out of desire to share their collections, but quite often, it takes a bit of work to convince them of the school’s worthiness. Competition between universities tends to be good-natured, however. In the end, regardless of where a collection ends up, the goal is to generate interest and intrigue about the works for many generations to come.

Much of the collection at SDSU was generously donated from the personal library of Edward Marsh, an alumnus from the late 1960s. Part of his most recent contribution, the Golden Age of Science Fiction Library, is on display in Donor Hall.03_06_13_Features_SpecialCollections1_CJ

Fortunately, Marsh didn’t need extensive persuasion for the donation—his love for the school was a driving force.

“I have a very warm spot in my heart for this university,” Marsh told SDSU NewsCenter in January. “There was nothing I wanted more than to make sure this collection made it here and that it would continue to be shown to the public and be maintained in perpetuity.”

Currently the gift represents only one-third of Marsh’s full library, which includes special editions of classics such as “Battlefield Earth” and “Dune,” two of his favorite and most-collected novels. Marsh expressed hope that his library will inspire new generations of writers.

“We need brilliant minds to be stimulated by the old brilliant minds and to come up with new ideas because science fiction points to the future,” he said. “It heralds the future of what can be.”

Ray noted that the department’s intention is to acquire additional content in the coming years from Marsh and other parties, ultimately expanding the exhibits. The generous donations already received are an incredible foundation, and students can only benefit from exposure to such works.

In a world where everything is becoming increasingly driven by technology, it’s important for us to remember our roots and understand the groundwork from which we have developed as intelligent beings. Only by learning from our past can we truly make great strides into new frontiers, and having such an incredible means to do so at our fingertips is an invaluable asset.

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