University City

UNCC’s rare book collection has treasures the public can enjoy

As soon as the elevator doors slide open on the 10th floor of the J. Murrey Atkins Library at UNC Charlotte, you know you’re in the presence of something special.

Each time the doors open to let a patron out on an earlier floor they offer the quick blink of a typical library setting, with rows of tall shelves and pockets of students concentrating over rectangular tables.

But on the 10th and final floor, the doors open to a grand, round room with towering curved glass walls. Behind them, thousands of colorful book spines line tiers of dark wooden shelves.

“It’s visually very stunning,” said Kristy Dixon, head of digital programs and collections, referring to the Dalton Rare Book and Manuscript Room.

It almost has to be to measure up to the treasures it holds within. This is where the past lives on.

The rare books room, named after Harry L. Dalton and his wife, Mary, holds 8,500 scarce gems, including hard-to-find first editions of revered works like Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.”

Harry Dalton, a local businessman, was also a bibliophile and art collector who shared his fondness for rare books by jump-starting the university’s collection with a sizable financial donation in the 1970s.

“He was the one who gave us a substantial gift to be able to purchase the first round of our rare book collection,” Dixon said.

The Daltons also handed over their prized copies of first-edition books for the university’s keeping, as well.

Not all the items in the collection are what you would expect to find, though. Next to the children’s literature section sets a collection of 20th-century erotica, which includes a shelf of Playboy magazines from the 1970s.

Turn-of-the-century medical textbooks, which Dixon refers to as both creepy and fascinating, also have a place in the room.

“It’s so interesting to see what people thought back then and what people think now,” Dixon said.

Although everything in the room is rare, the university doesn’t want the room to be rarely used. The special collections department, which also includes oral history interviews; manuscripts; local documents, including the mayors’ official papers; university archives; and digital collections, is open for anyone to enjoy, not just students and professors.

Patrons can look, touch, and examine anything.

“We’re not a museum. We’re working, active archives,” Dixon said. “We don’t want people to come in here and think that they can’t touch things. Everything that’s in here we want people to use.”

Patrons just have to follow a few rules. Check your personal items at the door, including any pens. Only pencils are allowed in the room. Show identification and sign your name, and you’re free to thumb through anything there.

Dress for warmth, Dixon said.

“For archival purposes we want to keep the temperature between 68 and 72 degrees. It’s very specific. And 42 percent to 52 percent relative humidity,” she said. “It’s cold in there, so we actually have sweaters available for our patrons.”

Although the university has been digitizing more and more of its material, and will continue to do so in the future, Dixon said it would never eliminate its paper copies.

“We don’t digitize things and then toss them. They’re still housed in the way that they’ve always been housed,” she said. “It’s still always here for people to come and touch and see and have that tactile experience.”