In Touch With...Tim Pyatt

Penn State’s Eberly Family Special Collections Library has long served as a resource for researchers having a wide range of professional and personal interests. Timothy D. Pyatt has served as Dorothy Foehr Huck Chair and head of Special Collections since June 1, 2011. He was previously associate director of the rare book, manuscript and special collections library at Duke University, his undergraduate alma mater. We asked him to discuss the role Penn State’s special collections play in facilitating scholarship.

Q. What’s so “special” about Special Collections? Why are certain materials housed there and not elsewhere in the University Libraries—in the stacks, perhaps?

Tim Pyatt
Photo: Patrick Mansell

A. Special collections materials are often rare—irreplaceable in some cases—and they can have a high dollar value. So we need to closely monitor their use. Also, donors of these materials can set certain restrictions on their use. For example, we’re the official archives of the United Mine Workers of America. It’s a large and diverse collection and includes such confidential items as accident reports. Researchers can use the report data in the aggregate but may not disclose personal identities. We monitor researchers’ use to protect confidentiality. The UMW archive, by the way, is one of our collections that draws researchers from all over the U.S. and even from abroad.

Q. What are some of the other collections with that kind of appeal?

A. We’re also the repository of the United Steel Workers administrative records, and those materials attract researchers from many states and nations. The collection that probably has brought in a greater diversity of scholars than any other is Utopian literature—we have the world’s largest collection. We also have the complete papers of the philosopher Kenneth Burke and the writer John O’Hara. They all attract researchers from around the globe.

Q. How do the University Libraries acquire such special collections?

A. In talking about acquisitions, first I have to pay tribute to my predecessors, Charley Mann and Bill Joyce. They did a tremendous job in building a solid foundation of content for the Special Collections library. Charley established it and had a wonderful eye for identifying collections that were unique and had long-term value. He established the Utopian literature collection with faculty member Art Lewis and he built the rare books collection. Bill—my immediate predecessor—added to Charley’s strengths and integrated the University Archives and the labor archives and rare books into a single special collections unit that has vastly improved our ability to serve patrons effectively.

Tim Pyatt
Photo: Patrick Mansell

Q. So acquiring additional material is mostly a one-person task?

A. It’s a team effort. I work with my colleagues in Special Collections—labor archivist Jim Quigel, University archivist Jackie Esposito, rare books curator Sandy Stelts, and others. We typically consult Penn State faculty and library faculty who are experts in the subject. We ask such questions as, can we use the proposed acquisition to enhance the University’s academic strengths and priorities? Is it unique? Is there a relationship to what we already have? In some cases we move in a completely new direction. That happened when we acquired the Charles Blockson Collection of African-Americana and the African Diaspora. In every instance, we try to gauge the acquisition’s long-term value—will it be important to researchers many years into the future and continue to bring distinction to the University?

Q. Much of your content seems to tilt toward the social sciences and humanities. What about other areas?

A. We have the papers of Joseph Priestly, an experimental chemist who discovered the properties of oxygen. That’s another collection that has drawn attention from researchers internationally. Our sports archive is one of the largest at any university. Thanks in part to Olympic historian John Lucas, our collection of Olympics materials is one of the best anywhere. Obviously we’re strong in Penn State athletics—not just material relating to athletic contests and athletes themselves, but also the administrative and business side of collegiate athletics.

Q. What are some of the hidden gems of Special Collections, that is, materials that hold great promise for researchers but perhaps are not well known yet or are not fully ready to be used?

A. One that quickly comes to mind is our collection relating to the coal and coke and railroad industries of western Pennsylvania. Much of that collection remains unprocessed, mainly for lack of funds, but we’re working to change that. A large portion consists of oral histories, corporate records, and photographs that are part of the coal and coke heritage collection at Penn State Fayette campus. We also have a large collection relating to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in western Pennsylvania. We want to secure support for those and related collections that would allow us to inventory and process our holdings and make them more accessible to researchers.

Tim Pyatt
Photo: Patrick Mansell

Q. Do other Penn State campuses have materials that might fit the Special Collections criteria?

A. Yes, including some of those gems you mentioned—the Alice Marshall collection in women’s history at Penn State Harrisburg, for instance, and the Behrend family papers and the related collection documenting the Hammermill Paper Company, which they founded, at the Behrend campus in Erie. Dean [of the Libraries Barbara] Dewey has encouraged us to think holistically, and we’re working with library staff and faculty at those campuses to advise them on appropriate Special Collections procedures and obtain the visibility those collections deserve among potential users.

Q. Is there a “typical” Special Collections user?

A. Well, I can tell you that about 50 percent of patrons are undergraduates. Working with Special Collections materials helps them hone their research skills. The remaining 50 percent of our patrons are divided about equally between Penn State faculty and staff, and people from outside Penn State. I might add that one of our priorities is to remain user-friendly. Our patrons can bring in their own digital cameras to do copy work, for instance, and they can do most of their own photocopying. That’s not the case in many other special collections libraries.

Q. Does the digital age present formidable challenges for Special Collections?

A. Many of our materials are coming to us in digital form, of course—Penn State’s own administrative records, for example. So we must have the resources to acquire and preserve born-digital content and make it available to researchers. We’ve created the new position of digital records archivist that will be a tremendous asset in that respect. But going digital also gives us a wonderful opportunity to better serve our patrons. We’re steadily making more of our traditional collections available in digital form—the Thomas Benson Political Protest Collection is a good example. In effect we’re democratizing our collections by making them available to patrons on a wherever-you-are, whenever-you-want basis. We want to make the Special Collections library accessible to that vast audience of potential users who will never actually walk through our doors.

Last Updated April 04, 2012