Ever wonder what Albert Einstein's autograph looks like? How about Thomas Jefferson's? George Washington?
An upcoming event at UNC Chapel Hill's Wilson Library may satisfy your curiosity. The university is digging out some of its most interesting historical pieces from its rare collections for a quick viewing Feb. 17.
It's called "Open Stacks: Behind the Scenes in the Southern Historical Collection, Southern Folklife Collection and the University Archives of Wilson LIbrary." If you go, you'll get a guided tour by a member of the collections staff.
The event runs from 5 to 7 p.m. and is on the fourth floor of Wilson Library. I asked Biff Hollingsworth, collecting and public programming archivist for the Southern Historical Collection, for some details. Here's what he had to say.
This is a peek behind the curtain?
"It's sort of that backstage pass of showing off our work. It won't be hands-on, picking through boxes, but the staff will explain what they do and show how we preserve these materials over time."
So how many pieces are there in this exhibit?
"The exhibit will include 60 to 80 items, images, documents, correspondence, letters."
"Rare stuff. We are the special collections part of the library. we deal with rare, unique materials. Non-circulating. Papers from authors and writers, and official notes and letters from chancellors and the board of trustees. All of our materials are considered to be, in some way, original and unique materials."
Are they not customarily available for public viewing?
"We definitely make all our materials available to researchers. We deal with a lot of folks in, say, the humanities disciplines who want to come in and do research on, for example, Frank Porter Graham or Paul Green. We make all that materials available to anyone who comes through the door. But we have security measures.
But that being said, we from time to time put things on exhibit in plain sight so everyone can see them, rather than in boxes back in our stacks."
So people not have even known that you have a letter from George Washington?
"Yes. We have a lot of surprise discoveries. We have whole collections from luminaries of our state, like Sam Ervin, Walker Percy, Paul Green. But we have individual items, individual letters embedded in our collections."
So, for example, where did the George Washington and Thomas Jefferson pieces come from?
"That's a great question. We actually have several Washington and Jefferson letters. The great majority of our individual collections are donated by families throughout the south. Generally speaking, letters like the Washington and Jefferson letters have come from families through the south.
The Jefferson letter comes in a collection from families who were related to the Jeffersons, so it would be a letter he wrote to a cousin or something like that. It's generally more of a personal nature. they will certainly reflect on their political works in the letters, but often it has more of a family basis."
Is something like that valuable?
"It certainly is. It's priceless to us. We wouldn't be anything without the number of donors who have given items to us. Collecting has been going on at the university since 1844 - of historical materials of this type."
So do these presidential letters get viewed a lot?
"Those particular items? Probably not. We generally make those available using some sort of reproduction. If a serious researcher really wants to know what type of ink Jefferson was using, he could certainly look at it. But I'd say the bulk of research people do is looking at large collections of things. They'd want to know the entire life history of someone."
You have a letter signed by Albert Einstein. Tell me about that.
"That was a standalone item, donated alone, just that item. It is a letter, undated, from Albert Einstein to Harrex - I'm guessing that was some sort of anonymous name - discussing motives for choosing to study mathematics or physics. The letter is directed to someone who is making that decision."
Is there a prized possession here?
"That is a great question. I guess just showing one or two of the presidential letters. That's pointing out that, to our knowledge, we have letters from every president up to George W. Bush. I don't think we have any from Obama yet. But in our collection, we have some reflections from each American president. So it's one example to show we have these wonderful materials."