Eight million. That's the approximate number of items -- books, manuscripts, photographs, posters, and more -- archived at the University of Memphis Libraries under the rather vague name of Special Collections. What began as a rare book room has grown into one of this region's historical treasure troves, and Associate Professor Ed Frank has watched over this astonishing cache of materials since 1994. We spoke with Frank about the scope of his domain, some lucky finds, and the book bound in human skin.
First of all, how did Special Collections get started?
It actually began in the early 1960s as a rare books room, and expanded when the English professors thought we should collect authors' papers and manuscripts, which we have.
But obviously it's much more than that now.
Oh yes. We have morphed into more of a strictly, but not predominantly, history collection. We have letters from Andrew Jackson, diaries from Civil War soldiers, the personal scrapbooks of Margaret Polk [the "Memphis Belle"], and materials relating to the sanitation workers' strike of 1968 that led to the death of Dr. Martin Luther King.
Do all the items have a Memphis connection?
No, in many cases they don't. For example, we have several hundred circus posters, and I've been told by experts that this is one of the best collections of original posters they have ever seen.
What is the most popular "chunk" of Special Collections?
The Press-Scimitar Collection is one of our most useful, and used, collections. It's about 500 boxes of clippings and as many as 500,000 photos. It's a historical cache of mid-twentieth-century Memphis that really isn't matched anywhere else.
That collection was a lucky find, wasn't it?
Yes. When that newspaper went out of business in 1983, all their old files were parked on the loading dock of the Memphis Publishing Company, on their way to the dumpster. Someone -- and I don't know who this was -- thought this might be a valuable historical resource, and they called the curator here [at that time, Eleanor McKay]. She went down there in her old station wagon and started hauling stuff back.
And everything is available to the public?
Certainly. It's not just for U of M students. Vance Lauderdale, in fact, is up here quite a lot.
Okay, tell us about the famous book bound in human skin.
Well, it was published in France in 1608, a time of religious civil wars between Catholics and Protestants. It's just a normal book, as far as the text goes, attacking the French Huguenot beliefs.
How did you acquire it?
It came from the estate of Berry Brooks, a well-known world traveler, big-game hunter, and collector. He bought the book in France in the 1950s.
Is it really human skin?
The university had a medical lab confirm that it's human skin. At the time, the practice was not that unusual -- one theory being that human skin was cheap and plentiful.
How do people react when they see it?
I usually don't let people handle the book -- it's in a protective case -- but I'll let them touch the cover if they want to. And it's funny. About half the people don't even want to be in the same room with it, and the other half will say, "Oh, that's so cool."
Are visitors surprised to find so many unusual things up here?
I would hope so. It's kind of a paradox. We have researchers from so many places outside of Memphis that I often think we are better known outside the city than inside.
Well, just wait until this story comes out.
Yes, people will be knocking on the door, asking to see our book bound in human skin.