Campus News

‘Raw material of history’

Toby Graham

Hargrett Library showcases largest, oldest special collections in University System of Georgia

The term “history book” takes on an entirely different meaning at the Hargrett Library.

There, you’ll find history not just written in the pages, but the pages themselves are a part of history—from a blood-stained letter penned by a murdered Creek Indian chief to James Oglethorpe’s original plan for the Savannah settlement as well as the papers of Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell.

The Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library houses the largest and oldest special collections in the University System of Georgia. It includes rare and unique items such as books dating to the 1400s, a guide to silkworms—thought by the Georgia colony’s trustees to hold the secret to economic prosperity for the fledging settlement—and a collection of Babylonian clay tablets.

The library specializes in holdings from Colonial Georgia, the Civil War, the Native American experience, Georgia writers, performing arts, natural history and university history. 

 “This is a place where our students can build their own understanding of the world from the raw material of history,” said Toby Graham, director of the Hargrett Library and deputy university librarian. “But the Hargrett is also a research destination for scholars from across the U.S. and internationally.” 

One of three special collections libraries housed in the new Richard B. Russell Building, the Hargrett Library holds the most comprehensive collection of books about Georgia and by Georgians. The UGA Archives and Records Management are part of the Hargrett. Among the Civil War-era holdings, the Hargrett Library houses the only surviving copy of the final draft of the Confederate Constitution, as well as books, manuscripts, music, diaries and related materials, written by people on both sides of the conflict.

“The exhibit halls in the new Russell Building allow us to showcase the library’s holdings to an extent never before possible,” Graham said. “Thousands have visited since the building’s dedication in February. Currently we’re highlighting the work of Georgia’s greatest writers.”

Graham also is excited about new opportunities to incorporate the Hargrett Library’s holdings into instruction at UGA.

“We are so pleased to see UGA courses using special collections so extensively,” he said. “Faculty are teaching individual sessions and sometimes entire courses at the new facility, giving students the chance to learn from original documents, artifacts and rare books.”

Some of the books in the Hargrett Library were originally purchased for the use of the students of the first graduating class of 1804. The cornerstone of the Hargrett’s rare book collection was acquired in 1938 with the purchase of the personal library of Wymberly Jones De Renne, the most complete collection of manuscript and printed materials relating to the early history of Georgia. The 10,000 to 15,000 piece collection, once housed on the Wormsloe Plantation, began in 1880 and consists of materials dating from Georgia’s existence as a colony until the 1930s. 

“The De Renne library also has a rich map collection. John Mitchell’s 1755 map of European dominions in North America and William Faden’s 1783 map of North America are among the many notable cartographic treasures in the collection,” Graham said.  

The international performing arts collections offer a unique perspective of history beyond Georgia’s borders. 

The Paris Music Hall collection consists of original drawings of scene and costume designs used in Paris music halls from 1920 to 1939. Most of the sketches are in color, done on tracing paper or watercolor paper. A few have fabric swatches attached. The collection includes designers such as Erté, Serge Kojan, Alex Shanks, Freddy Wittop, José Zamora and Zig. 

In 2000, the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame was established at the Hargrett to honor Georgia writers and to introduce the public to the library’s rich collections for research into Georgia literature and cultural history. 

UGA English professor Judith Ortiz Cofer and award-winning nonfiction writer -Melissa Fay Greene, both 2011 inductees, have given their papers to the library, along with other hall members.

To celebrate the GWHF’s new home in the Russell Building, an exhibit of the works and memorabilia of current members was installed in the Hargrett gallery this fall and will be on display through the end of the year.

“The UGA Libraries welcomes the university community and the public to visit the Hargrett, along with the Russell Library and Brown Media Archive in their new home,” Graham said. “It’s a place where we build on outstanding, unique collections to promote research, learning and public appreciation and enjoyment of Georgia’s history and culture.”