Special collections and heavy metal bands

By Daniel J. Linke, Interim Associate University Librarian for Special Collections, Princeton University Library

photo by Shelley Szwast, Princeton University Library

Amidst all the hubbub of the opening of the Emily Hale Letters from T.S. Eliot, a researcher asked me, “How many other sealed collections do you have?”  If by sealed, I replied, you mean restricted by donor covenant, there are a number, but I don’t have the exact figure in my head.  No, she replied, sealed, with metal bands, like this collection was. That answer was much easier: zero.  The reasoning for robustly sealing the collection and when it was done, however, are not well-documented, but I offer some speculation and hypothesize the answer to both here.

From the contents of the boxes, we know that the boxes were not sealed any earlier than April 1965. Though the correspondence between Hale and Eliot ended in 1957, the collection contains drafts of her narrative, including the final version from April 1965, just over three months after Eliot’s death.  Two years later, Hale donated additional material, including two additional Eliot letters.  In a letter to University Librarian William Dix, she stated that these letters need not be sealed with the other letters she previously donated.  

There are no documents that state explicitly when the collection was sealed, but sometime between these two points in time, the 12 boxes were wrapped in kraft paper and the paper taped shut.  Then six boxes were grouped and held together with four wood slats on the top, bottom, front, and back, with two large wood panels on the ends. Wire bands of the kind still used for shipping today were then wrapped around the four slats and ends and secured.  This configuration would not allow any easy or casual access to the letters.

Why? In 1965, the Firestone Library was still in its original form–there had been only a few renovations and small additions since its opening in 1948.  The biggest changes were the construction of the John Foster Dulles Library in 1960, the installation of air conditioning in 1964, and the addition of the Scheide Library in 1965.  Modern security systems did not yet exist, and Special Collections materials were protected by nothing more than an unmarked locked door within the department’s office.  That door was unlocked during the day to allow staff to retrieve materials for patrons, according to the retired Curator of Western Americana, Alfred Bush, who began working in the department in the mid-1960s.  Therefore, the entire boxed, taped, and banded contraption protected the letters from the idly curious or prying eyes. In addition, by packing six boxes together, the bulk would make it very challenging to surreptitiously squirrel away one box to some other location for private examination.

But why take the effort?  Then, as now, Princeton University Library staff took their obligations to donors seriously.  Given the notoriety of the letters, if the donor wanted the collection closed for 50 years, the librarians used the best tools at their disposal to ensure that it would be so.  Since the Firestone renovation and Special Collections’ move to its present location, restricted collections are protected by far more sophisticated measures, without the need for metal bands.  And the number of collections that are still restricted by donor covenant? Less than two dozen, but none for as long or with the anticipated expectation of these exceptional letters.