Seidman House holds hidden national gems

by Nate Hoekstra         photos by Bernadine Carey-Tucker

Anyone who has walked the Great Lakes Plaza from the south end of the Little Mac bridge to Lake Michigan Hall has passed by a unique collection of historical artifacts that are hidden in plain sight.

Robert Beasecker and Nancy Richard run the Special Collections and University Archives, both found in Seidman House.

The collections hold a remarkable array of hidden gems, rare treasures that are available for research, study and general exploration. A pristine World War I uniform worn by Russel Kirkhof, for whom a campus building in Allendale is named, is a highlight. So is the collection of notes, manuscripts and letters of celebrated Michigan-born author Jim Harrison, and one of the larger collections of books, letters and artifacts about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War anywhere in the U.S.

These, and much more, can be found inside the Seidman House, a small building that is home to thousands of pieces of history in the University Libraries’ holdings. Robert Beasecker is the director of Special Collections and University Archives, and asking him to pick his favorite piece from the collection doesn’t elicit a simple response. “So you’re asking me to pick which one of my children I love the most?” he said, jokingly. The collection is so vast, and each piece or collection so different from the others, it’s a hard choice to make, he said.

The variety of the university’s Special Collections is what makes it so interesting to Beasecker and University Archivist Nancy Richard. The number of books tops 32,000, and the collections continue to grow, but quantifying the total number of items in the Seidman House is difficult.

“The materials range from books to manuscripts, from one item collections to collections of hundreds of cartons, from digital files, to paintings, artifacts, newspapers and photographs,” Richard said. “Because of this, there really isn’t an accurate way to measure the collection except by the number of feet of material on the shelves and that really doesn’t do it justice since all of the material here is unique.”

The collections often go unnoticed by students and the public because they’re not on display like books in the library, but kept in controlled conditions for the sake of preservation, Beasecker said. “The special collections are usually rare items, one-of-a-kinds, and other materials that are exceptionally significant,” Beasecker said. “We have a duty to keep these things safe, and well cared for, but we also don’t want to keep them hidden away or sitting in storage. We want people to find the things that are here.”

Building awareness of the material kept in the Seidman House is a challenge, but online catalogs and ongoing efforts to digitize portions of the collection are helping the cause. Richard said the Special Collections and University Archives website is being redesigned with features that should help search efforts. Many of the Seidman House collections are catalogued and searchable through the University Libraries search engine (library.catalog.gvsu.edu/search/X and click “Special Collections and Rare Books”). The University Archives and Special Collections also maintains digital collections, which include electronic copies of pieces for online viewing.
(gvsu.cdmhost.com/cdm/)

Another way to try to find something in the Seidman House is to ask Beasecker, who has been with the University Libraries since 1970, or Richard, who has been at Grand Valley since 2005.

Most of the time the collections are used by Grand Valley students, faculty and staff members, but they are also used often for research purposes, either for writing academic papers for post-graduate study or for books, Richard said. Some photographs and films have been used in publications, exhibits and movies. Others ask to see the materials simply to explore truly unique samples of writing, art or history.

Allegory on the Death of Lincoln
Allegory on the Death of Lincoln, 1865.

Researchers have come from all over the world to the Seidman House to study. The curator of a museum dedicated to artist Constantin Meunier traveled from Belgium to study an original oil painting called “Allegory on the Death of Lincoln” from 1865, and a California man stayed in the area for a month to study the L. William Seidman FDIC papers for his dissertation on the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. Researchers from France have traveled to study the Jim Harrison collection, and researchers from the University of Missouri found digitized copies of old reel-to-reel audio tapes made by the City of Grand Rapids founders helpful for their study of speech patterns of the upper Midwest.

The materials in the Special Collections come from a wide variety of sources, Beasecker said. Most of the collections were either acquired as gifts from donors or through purchases. Collections also come from antiquarian book dealers who Beasecker has worked with for years. They know what kind of material Beasecker is looking for, and will let him know if they find an interesting piece. Other sources used to locate books and materials are the popular online auction site eBay and dealers’ catalogs, Beasecker said.

Beasecker and Richard often work with university departments, collaborating to collect complementary materials like notes, manuscripts and edited works that go along with displays like art gallery exhibits and research projects. The Seidman House holds materials from artist Mathias Alten in conjunction with the university’s collection in the Gordon Gallery, and it will receive the transfer of the papers of artist Cyril Lixenberg that complement a large collection of his art owned by the university. Papers from the founder of the Young Lords, donated through his liberal studies research project at the university, and photos and letters from the Veterans History Project are other examples.

Materials in the archives include minutes from Board of Trustees meetings, department newsletters and the student newspaper. The archives also hold items that are less procedural and more historic, including documents that reflect a history of the Allendale Campus ravines, and magazine articles from the 1970s showing off an audio/video system that would give each student access to recorded lectures — a first-of-its-kind system 40 years ago. The archives were used extensively when material was gathered for the celebration of Grand Valley’s 50th anniversary, and for the exhibit on L. William Seidman in the new Seidman Center. Faculty members frequently use the archives to look up a historical record of curriculum and policy.

Pieces from both the archives and Special Collections are often curated for display by Beasecker in glass cases in the lobby of the building, including books about fictitious future wars, ornately decorated book bindings and Michigan-based dime novels. “We try to change the displays as much as we can, and still don’t get to do it as much as we want to,” Beasecker said. “It takes a lot to write descriptions and find hidden correlations between pieces from different collections, but we try to show off some of the most interesting content we can.”

One positive effect of being relatively undiscovered is that students who are in-the-know use Seidman House as a quiet study space. There are comfortable chairs, a fireplace and floor-to-ceiling windows that look out over the ravines, which present an especially striking view in the winter with snow on the trees, Beasecker said. The Seidman House is open for studying and researching the archives and collections from 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

“The materials in the University Archives and Special Collections give us a chance to solve puzzles, and to figure out how things were in the past, what they meant at the time, and what they mean now,” Beasecker said. “The most exciting part about working here is being able to continue to learn as more material comes in. It’s very rewarding to be able to continually develop and maintain such interesting and unique collections.”


Notable Collections

Michigan in the Novel:
Roughly 2,700 novels that are set within the geographic boundaries of Michigan.

15th Century Printing:
Commonly called “incunabula” this collection includes more than 140 books, all from the 1400s, which were printed within the first 50 years of the invention of printing from moveable type. Most of the books and pamphlets are religious in nature, and make up the second largest collection of its kind in the state. One particular piece, printed in Spanish, offers an indulgence for sale by the Bishop of Osma, and is the only copy in the U.S.

Papers of Jim Harrison:
This collection is available for research, but not digitized because of its size and copyright restrictions. The collection provides insight into the writer through his manuscripts, and extensive correspondence from the 1960s with other writers, publishers, celebrities, foodies and fans throughout the U.S. and France.

D.J. Angus Photo Collection:
An extensive photographic record of Angus’ work and travels throughout the U.S. and Mexico. Images reflect the photographer’s interest in engineering projects such as the creation of Mt. Rushmore, ancient civilizations, natural phenomena, and family
and friends.

West Michigan Ephemera:
This collection includes postcards, photographs, memorabilia and other sundries from around
West Michigan.

Presidents, Spys:
Two collections of books donated to the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies and housed in Special Collections are the J. Randall Bergers Presidential Writings Collection and the Don Markle Espionage Collection. Both have been cataloged and are open to researchers.

Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War:
Thousands of books, periodicals, documents, works of art and more detailing the life, presidency and death of Abraham Lincoln and the war. The collection includes “Allegory on the Death of Lincoln,” a 1865 painting (at right) by Belgian artist Constantin Meunier, and an extremely rare “Wanted” poster following Lincoln’s assassination that was printed before photographs of the wanted men had been distributed.

 

Page last modified November 18, 2013