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Davis, California

Monday, May 20, 2024

The Hidden Treasures of the UC Davis Library

Although most UC Davis students use the Peter J. Shields Library as a place for studying or to pick up books relevant to their courses, the library has much more to offer. Delve into its special collections of art, wine literature, maps and rare books and you’ll be sure to find something that will pique your interest. Below you’ll find a sample of just some the things that often go undiscovered by students.

The Special Collections

The first pages of an 1847 Charles Dickens novel are faded, blue and covered in advertisements of that time (Nunn’s Made Mustard, Sovereign Life Insurance and a soon to be published autobiography – Jane Eyre.)

The Dickens novel is just one of many curious things held in the Special Collections, situated on the first floor of the library. Although there are a wide variety of items available for use in the collection, most of its content focuses on California’s Central Valley and provides information about local history.

“Students should come in here to learn about the history of the UC Davis campus, to find out what we have and how we can help them, and to discover how they can use original sources in their work,” said Liz Phillips, a manuscript archivist.

The range of the special collection is broad, with the oldest item, a Sumerian clay tablet, dating back to about 1974 BC.

Library staff continues to add newer objects to the collection, including a 2003 art piece where John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row has been printed on round pages and put into a tin can to fit the novel’s theme of sardine canneries in Monterey during the Great Depression.

“We have a collection of artist’s books,” Phillips said. “It is something we are particularly interested in.”

Phillips said they are especially focusing on local, Bay Area artists in the collection. One example of this is a book collaboration between woodcut artist Tom Killion and poet Gary Snyder, who is a Pulitzer Prize winner and who has served as a faculty member at UC Davis.

The book, High Sierra of California, pairs Snyder’s poetry and Killion’s art, and according to Phillips, is a good example of the book art they are trying to collect.

Library art

Most people who use Peter J. Shields Library regularly will be familiar with the reading – or, depending on how you interpret it, the sleeping-with-open-eyes – egghead that is buried in a book near the library entrance. The artist behind the piece is the late Robert Arneson, who taught art at UC Davis for more than 40 years.

This particular piece is known as “The Bookhead,” and serves as an example of typical library art, namely because of its connection between the artist and UC Davis. Much of the artwork in the library has been donated by artists who were often UC Davis faculty members as well.

There are over 600 pieces of art in the UC Davis library system, but most of them are on display in Peter J. Shields Library because it is the largest one.

The artwork on the walls has not changed over the past couple of years since Sharrow, who helped build many of the library’s collections, retired in 2009.

Jean Korinke, the director of development at the University Library, said one of the most noticeable paintings is probably “What the Hell? (My UC Davis Art Department, 1998)” by Richard Vonn Cummings-Sumner — an oil-on-canvas painting depicting the 1998 art faculty at UC Davis. In Korinke’s experience, the painting captures the attention of most people who enter the Main Reading Room where it is situated.

“If you were to send someone to look at art in just one place in the library, the Main Reading Room would be my choice,” said Daniel Goldstein, the arts, humanities and social sciences librarian. “I would also say that there are pieces tucked away so people should try to look up when they are at the water fountain or walking by the bathrooms. It’s easy to overlook the stuff that’s in here.”

A world-class wine collection

Historically, academic library collections have been ranked on a scale from 1 to 5, where 0 means that there is no collection and 4 means that the collection can support all levels of teaching and research. UC Davis’ Viticulture and Enology Collection scores 5.

“We have the finest collection in the world and people should take the time to look at it,” said wine bibliographer Axel Borg. “It’s available for people to use and they won’t find a collection like this anywhere else.”

The collection of wine literature contains more than 30,000 volumes in over 50 different languages, and is the most comprehensive special collection of its type.

One of the reasons for its high-ranked status, Borg said, is that they collect their material without national bias — something that is typical for the U.S., as opposed to Italy and France, where university collections of wine literature often will be mostly in the respective countries’ native languages.

According to Borg, the Viticulture and Enology Collection is particularly strong when it comes to the technical aspects of making wine, wine diseases and growing grapes. Borg wishes to improve the material on wine laws, the marketing of wine and social aspects of wine.

“We also collect things that are not necessarily good science,” Borg said. “We want to get everything on wine that you can possibly get, the stuff that goes beyond what a good research collection offers. The collection needs to be flexible.”

For example, the collection will have the same book in different languages — just in case a student should decide to do research on the translation of wine literature.

This example shows how the study of wine does not necessarily have to be from a hard science perspective, but can be, as in this case, from the humanities. Borg has also been in contact with an art history Ph.D student who was conducting research on how grapes are portrayed as art. Alternatively, from a social science perspective, Borg pointed out that wine can be studied by how its consumption affects American cuisine.

Borg encourages all people to explore the collection, regardless of expertise level. He receives inquiries from a wide range of people — from the amateur who just went wine tasting in Napa to the graduate student of the London School of Economics who is studying the economics of wine.

The collection of maps

A Scottish student happened to wander into “the map room” on the lower floor of Peter J. Shields Library, and upon exiting, had seen maps of both his clan’s crest and its tartan pattern.

Like this student, many people don’t know what the map room is before they randomly decide to enter, but often end up learning more about their background.

The UC Davis map collection contains over 400,000 maps. While the maps represent most places in the world, the collection focuses on California and more specifically on the Central Valley.

“The strength of our collections is showing historical change in geographical locations,” said map assistant Dawn Collings. “We can show how city limits and counties have changed or how urban development has grown.”

The map room also has a collection of aerial photography, and Collings estimated that about 50 percent of the students who enter the map room use it. The collection, dating back to 1937, is valuable for people in research to show how land has changed. Usually the changes are manmade, and the collection is often an important source for people studying environmental changes.

“The most popular old maps are the ones that show land ownership,” Collings said.  “Some go back to the 1870s.”

Every week, Collings decides on an overall theme and showcases new maps each day that pertain to that theme. At the time of writing, the theme is the British Isles, and the map on display is a Sherlock Holmes literary map, showing the connection between the geographical places in the stories and the real places in London and England.

The literary map is just one example of a long row of unusual maps which the collection also contains. Some examples include a map showing all the microbreweries in Northern California (including Davis’s Sudwerk), an “eccentric map” of California which points out the geographical locations of events both bizarre and peculiar, and the Upside Down Map of the road from northern to southern California, which puts south in the top of the map with a surprisingly logical result.

Photo by Katie Lin


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