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Spotlight on Archives Reveals Diverse Treasure Trove


Archivist Patrice Kane, M.L.S., oversees the University’s rare collections in the William D. Walsh Family Library.
Photo by Ken Levinson

Resting on a library cart in a back room of the William D. Walsh Family Library, awaiting some preservation work, is a loose and tattered collection of old handwritten entries, shuttered within two leather covers, in very delicate condition. The papers constitute a diary written in the mid-1800s by a Fordham professor, Peter Tissot, S.J., whose firsthand accounts of his work as a Civil War chaplain offer the kind of personal history that brings a monumental historical event into hearts and minds.

The diary is part of a diverse assemblage of rare books and manuscripts, University records, prized collections and historical memorabilia found in Fordham’s archives and special collections.

Fordham’s archives are housed on the 4th floor of the Walsh Library and are open to scholarly researchers whose needs cannot be met through standard library materials. Some of the items in the collection (its worth is estimated in the millions of dollars) date to ancient civilizations. Although not as large as many university archives, Fordham’s archive boasts several unique treasures, including the incunabula (Latin for “cradle”) collection of rare books from the 1400s (pre-printing press), three of George Washington’s military diaries, and a rare poster of the original Irish Declaration of Independence from 1919. The Declaration, on loan from Michael Hanna, is currently on display in the archives’ 4th-floor display case. Other rare materials are kept in a fireproof vault.

The collection is overseen by Patrice Kane, M.L.S., head of university archives and special collections. As an archivist, Kane is in her element: When she was a little girl, she fell in love with mummies, inspired by the old black-and-white reruns on TV (featuring an Ace-bandaged Boris Karloff), and set her sights on a career working in a museum. When she arrived at Fordham 20 years ago, she found to her delight that the diverse archives also contain a bit of mummified material.

On a recent tour of the archives and special collections, Kane pointed out a piece of mummy wrap from a sarcophagal inhabitant: “It is written in Demotic Greek, the Greek that cracked the code of the Rosetta Stone,” she said. “You could pick these up in Cairo pretty easily, for a song—until recently.”

The mummified material is part of a project called the Advanced Papyrological Information System (APIS) at Columbia University library. APIS is a collaboration among Columbia, Fordham and other universities, to consolidate information on ancient scripts found on, among other things, mummy masks.

The fireproof vault is a small room with floor-to-ceiling shelving containing some of the University’s most precious archival materials. One of Fordham’s most famous incunabula holdings is a manuscript about St. Thomas Aquinas, which contains a gilded illustration of the philosopher and theologian holding a book. “What I liked about this is that it’s probably the closest we are going to get to a photo of Thomas Aquinas,” Kane said. “It was probably drawn by someone who knew somebody who knew somebody who vaguely remembered him.”

Washington’s military diaries, she said, have been a hit with various school groups who have toured the library over the years.

“First, we’d take them down to the Electronic Information Center and show them a popular movie on the big screen,” she said. “Then, they’d come up to the archives. When I’d show them the diary, they’d become speechless, seeing Washington’s handwriting. They’ve seen Godzilla a hundred times, but something like this really makes history come alive for them.”

Archival material finds its way to Fordham from a variety of sources: benefactors, alumni, faculty, and outright purchases of rare books or other Fordham-related objects. Kane and her staff have even been known to make periodic searches on eBay for precious materials. She recently bought two items from the online auction site, including a 19th century map depicting the site of the college before it was built, and a Civil War-era letter written by someone from the Fordham area.

“I’ve become a much more savvy eBay shopper,” Kane said. “Once we paid too much; someone identified us [as a university]and inflated the price. Now, we try and keep a lower profile.”

Weaving through dozens of stacks of rollback shelving, Kane points out various special collections. In one aisle is a collection of a few hundred miniature books. A 2” by 1.5” copy of Henry David Thoreau’s Turtle Pond fits between Kane’s thumb and forefinger. A different aisle holds a collection of oversize books, which include the second printed edition of the complete drawings from Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt. Kane said that Napoleon did something “brilliant” while failing at his invasion: It took the French army several years to return home, and during that time, Kane said, French artists made 837 copper engravings and more than 3,000 illustrations of the ancient land. “And we have all of them,” Kane said.

The Great Sphinx, circa 1800, drawn by French artists accompanying Napoleon on his failed invasion of Egypt and published in the 1820s from a collection of copper engravings.
Image courtesy of Fordham University Archives

Some of the special collections are not rare materials—at least not yet. For its World Trade Center collection, Kane said the University is purchasing every book published about 9/11. She explained that such books typically have short press runs, and spend a limited time on the market. Since the Bronx is considered to be the birthplace of hip-hop, the University is also collecting books, oral histories and music on the subject for its Bronx African American History Archive.

“People assume that archives are old papers,” said Kane. “But today’s papers are tomorrow’s archives, [so]the WTC Collection and the Bronx African American History Collection are just as valuable as medieval manuscripts.”

Additional outstanding archival holdings include a series of 18th century paintings by artist John Trumbull, a series of Parsifal drawings from Germany, and a series of maps of New Amsterdam, donated by alumnus Bert Twaalfhoven, CBA ’52. (As a poor student who had lost everything in the World War II bombing of The Hague, Twaalfhoven received a scholarship from Robert Gannon, S.J., the president of Fordham University. Twaalfhoven went on to become a successful venture capitalist.) All three holdings are on display in the library.

Kane attended Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, and received her undergraduate degree in history and her master’s degree in history and archival management. In addition, she received a master’s degree in library science from the University of Pittsburgh. This month Kane was honored with an Archbishop Hughes award for 20 years’ service at Fordham, where she started out as a research librarian. She said she is amazed at how archival acquisition, preservation and documentation has changed in two decades.

“When I came [to Fordham]we were still using McBee cards,” Kane said, recalling the manual cataloging system. “Now we are digitizing images and we carry much of our material online.”

Kane said the digitizing of archival images, although labor intensive, brings more recognition to Fordham’s valuable holdings. Her staff (Vivian Shen, preservation and conservation librarian, Henry Bertels, S.J., rare book cataloger, and six student workers) pitches in to preserve and maintain the collection and to answer inquiries.

By far, Kane said, the majority of archival inquiries are from former Fordham students or their families, looking for pictures. One of the most popular archival holdings is the complete set of Fordham’s yearbooks, dating back to the university’s beginning.

“Genealogical researchers call up and say ‘I think my grandfather went to school with so and so–can we get photos?’” Kane said. “The hardest part of my job is when I have to say ‘Sorry, but your grandfather did not play football with Vince Lombardi.’”

– Janet Sassi


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