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The Ninth Floor

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
—Jorge Luis Borges

While we might take for granted these wonderful places that loan us books for free, it might surprise us to learn that libraries have not always been the public access institutions of today. In fact, more often than not, the libraries of antiquity were the special collections of the elite and ruling classes, and the ideas contained therein were available to only a few rather than the masses.

Beginning in the early 19th century, public lending libraries are a fairly recent phenomenon. Yet for thousands of years libraries of all sorts made their collections available in the hopes of fostering scholarship and preserving knowledge. 

The oldest surviving royal library in the world is the collection of Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria. In the 600s BCE, tens of thousands of cuneiform tablets in his library at Nineveh were cataloged very much like the books of today are recorded in card catalogs or library databases and organized in rooms by subject matter. Browsing the tablets at that time, one might have happened upon The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest known works of literature. The 30,000 clay tablets that remain today provide archaeologists with an amazing wealth of Mesopotamian literary, religious, and administrative work, including hymns and prayers, as well as medical, mathematical, ritual, divinatory, and astrological texts.

The Royal Library of Alexandria, founded in 283 BCE (a few hundred years after the library at Nineveh was buried by invaders), held some 700,000 scrolls and drew scholars and scientists from around the ancient world. The mathematician Euclid studied and worked there, as did the grammarian and lexicographer Aristophanes II. Located in the cosmopolitan port town of Alexandria near the mouth of the Nile River, the library collected much of its material through an aggressive and well-funded royal mandate involving trips to the book fairs of Rhodes and Athens and a policy of acquiring every book found on ships entering the port (they were copied and the copies returned to the owners). A centerpiece of thought and culture for the ancient world, the library finally succumbed in 400 CE to years of wars, fires, and a major flood that destroyed much of its collections.

In seventh-century China, a Buddhist monk named Jingwan began carving sutras, canonical scriptures regarded as records of the oral teachings of Gautama Buddha, on stone tablets and hid them in underground caverns in an effort to protect the religion from empirical persecution. For a thousand more years, Buddhist monks carried on Jingwan’s preservation and archival work in the caves below the vast Yunju Temple at the foot of Mount Baidai, where today over 14,000 of these stone tablets have been found.

Almost a thousand years later in a newly discovered land, Bishop Diego de Landa of Spain was destroying Mayan idols and burning every deerskin and ficus bark codex he could find in the Mayan Yucatán. Covered with carefully composed ideograms depicting subjects ranging from astronomy, agricultural cycles, and history to religion and prophecy, these codices were buried or hidden in caves by the Mayans in the hope they would survive the wrath of the European missionaries. Some have been found, but because of the tropical humidity, only fragments remain, and the images have long since disappeared. Only a precious few survive intact, giving us a glimpse of the complex language and culture belonging to the people who once inhabited much of Mexico and Central America.

Over the course of human history, it seems the written word—whether on stone, papyrus, parchment, or paper—has been falling prey to war, nature, tyrants, and true believers alike. Not even the special collections of the elite are immune to these elements.

But, ideas do not die, and those who strive to preserve them do not give up easily. There are a proud few who constantly seek out not only exceptional historical works in print, but also significant contemporary works in the hope of preserving the unique culture of a people or era. Today these special collections steward ideas in print—both great and rare—and make them accessible to a whole new generation of scholars and the public at large.

University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Memorial Library houses one such special collection, which was established in the late 1940s. The preservation of ancient volumes and safeguarding of books from the general library collection that were published before 1800 is part of the mission of the Department of Special Collections. But its primary focus is to make available to students and scholars books that are difficult to find and extremely important to their particular fields of study. Special collections libraries across the university world are tightly focused, sometimes with specialties built around gifts from large private collections. Part of the General Library System of UW–Madison, the Department of Special Collections concentrates on areas like American women writers, little literary magazines, and the history of science (though, the collections here range much further in subject and chronology). Robin Rider, the curator of the collections, like her predecessors, acquires works that add breadth and depth to these subject areas and serve the needs of the scholars, teachers, and students.


Some twenty years after I finished my linguistics program at UW–Madison, I found myself back in Memorial Library looking for an article on crossword puzzle construction, an interest stemming from my studies. The article in question first appeared in Esopus, a non-commercial arts magazine published biannually and featuring fresh, unmediated perspectives on contemporary culture from a wide range of creative professionals. Esopus stands out as a cutting-edge alternative to the mainstream magazine world, with audio CDs in each issue and the occasional removable insert ranging from a facsimile license plate to business cards to strips of obscure film negatives to a fold-out threedimensional dodecahedron model created by mathematician John Conway.

After an Internet search of public libraries and inter-library loan possibilities, the only place in Madison that I could find the specific back issue was in the Department of Special Collections … on the ninth floor of Memorial Library. I was actually surprised to find that there is a ninth floor. Those who have spent time doing research as undergraduate or graduate students, trolling the lower floors of Memorial Library, might be equally surprised.

It turns out that Esopus and other little magazines—small-run magazines with thoughtful yet somewhat esoteric content—became a real strength of the Special Collections when, in the late 1950s, they purchased Minneapolis psychiatrist Marvin Sukov’s private collection of literary magazines. Characterized by their non-commercial attitudes and their penchant for the avant-garde and experimental, little magazines have continuously rebelled against established literary expression and theory by demonstrating an aggressive receptivity to new authors, new ideas, and new styles. Home to well-known titles like Poetry: A Magazine of Verse—which published groundbreaking works like T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and James Joyce’s early poems—and obscurities like Esopus, the Department of Special Collections boasts arguably the best collection of little magazines in the country today.

It was an earlier addition to the ranks, however, that would form the cornerstone of the Special Collections: a stunning group of books amassed by a wealthy bibliophile from Wisconsin. Chester Thordarson’s insatiable curiosity for the sciences and his penchant for collecting rare books led to the creation of one of the finest collections on scientific thought from the last four centuries. Thordarson, an immigrant from Iceland and successful Midwest inventor and entrepreneur, had slowly amassed a library of rare and fundamental books on a broad range of the sciences at his Rock Island compound in Door County. In his will, Thordarson stated that the University of Wisconsin should have the first opportunity to purchase his collection. It did so upon his death in 1945, for the bargain price of $270,000. Bolstered by subsequent acquisitions on topics like physics, chemistry, mathematics, natural history, ornithology, and electricity (and even magnetism, alchemy, and pseudo-science), today the History of Science Collection can truly be said to be priceless.

Over the years and under the direction of various curators and librarians, the Department of Special Collections has developed other specializations: the William B. Cairns Collection of American Women Writers 1650–1940; the History of the Book; Greek and Latin papyri; and campus humor magazines.

After listening to my request for the article in Esopus, Special Collections librarian Barbara Richards brought out from the “vault” the issue in question. Because the article was quite long, Richards carefully laid the magazine in a book edge photocopier and, without cracking the perfect spine, made copies of the pages for me. As she worked, Richards talked about the Special Collections’ search for, and purchase of, a complete run of Esopus.

In many ways, Esopus is emblematic of the thousands of little magazines in the Department of Special Collections. “We choose magazines from CLMP [Council of Literary Magazines and Presses] listings, and order sample issues, then decide if they are of interest to us,” said acquisitions librarian Susan Barribeau, adding that she also spends “a lot of time on the blogs,” in pursuit of magazines that will enhance the collection.

In the case of Esopus, Barribeau and Richards were seeking the entire run: sixteen back issues by this time. Since the first seven issues of Esopus were sold out, Richards got online to scour booksellers’ inventories and found a store in New York that had what the she wanted. Considering that the Little Magazine Collection acquires about 1200 new titles a year and currently includes between 7,000 and 8,000 items, Barribeau and Richards spend a lot of time doing detective work like this both online and over the phone.


Fascinated by the Department of Special Collections’ acquisitions process, I returned to the ninth floor of Memorial Library a few weeks later to meet with Barribeau and curator Robin Rider in the hope of learning a little more about what the library holds. I was prepared for a simple sit-down interview with the two, and was surprised to find an array of materials awaiting me when I arrived. Entering the reference room, I was asked to leave my backpack in one of the lockers (“keys are on the counter”), and advised that if I would be taking notes to do so in pencil only—no pens.

The reference room is a space containing reference works on a variety of subjects, including two shelves of volumes devoted to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and author Harriett Beecher Stowe. “U.T.C.,” as they refer to Stowe’s seminal work, is a treasured part of the library’s William B. Cairns Collection of American Women Writers 1650 1940. The critical works and esoterica found in the Cairns Collection give young students a starting point to their research and provide Stowe scholars a treasure trove of information.

The reference room is also the space where visiting scholars and classes interested in special collections materials study pieces from storage rooms, a.k.a. “the vaults.” When books or magazines are brought out from the vaults and into the reference room, they are still wellprotected: windows are coated with anti-UV film, as are the ceiling lights, and the temperature and humidity are carefully controlled. While cameras are allowed for research purposes, flash photography is not permitted to guard against the effect it would have on ancient paper or ink. “And, of course,” Rider says with a smile, “there are security systems.”

Largely responsible for the continued growth of the Little Magazine Collection, Barribeau showed me to a table on which she had laid out a striking array of Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, a literary journal whose every issue is differently shaped. The first few issues are, you could say, typical of a lower budget literary magazine. However, as Barribeau pointed out, the publication began to go not outside, but, rather, inside the box as it matured. Issue 7 is a box of individually bound selections of fiction and poetry, held together with a rubber band. Issue 36 is another box with an illustration of a human head, complete with a bald spot on the top. Instead of the usual “Inside this issue” page for this masterpiece, there is a page titled, “Inside this head…” Issue 26 is a facsimile of the Armed Service Editions of books, a series cheaply made and distributed to GIs during World War II. Barribeau set the McSweeney’s version on the table while Rider pulled a couple of the original Armed Service Editions titles from a cart and placed them next to the facsimile. “Pretty close, isn’t it,” she said. It was.

Rider reminded me that “the History of Science is one of our strengths” as she went to her cart and brought a weighty volume back to the table. “This has been rebound many times,” she said as she gently set A Nievve Herbal on one of the cloth “pillows” that support book covers to avoid cracking of fragile spines. She pointed out that this botanical guide was printed in London in 1578 and was probably made for herbalists. The 434-year-old book, copiously annotated by its unknown owner in an almost elfin hand and filled with detailed woodcuts of plants, was almost a “history of the book” with a mystery in the marginalia all its own. Rider noted that before the end of the 18th century, books like this were usually sold unbound. Customers bought what was essentially a sheaf of pages, then took it a bindery and chose the decorative binding themselves.

A good example of decorative binding is the collection’s 1735 copy of the Works of Jonathan Swift. “I like to show this to students who come here on a class assignment, because everyone is familiar with Gulliver’s Travels, most likely in its Penguin or Modern Library editions,” said Rider. But “they’ve probably never seen the 18th century volumes before.”

Her intended effect worked on me, too, as I looked back across the years to imagine the irreverent reverend paging through his just-published work.

As she parsed her way through French, German, Greek, and Dutch passages in the books we looked at, Rider’s constant off-the-cuff references to esoterica about authors and printing techniques captivated me. She set a 1694 English translation of Meditationes de Prima Philosophia (Meditations On First Philosophy),

written by the seminal French Enlightenment thinker René Descartes, on one of the pillows on the table. Thin and needing no pillow, Albert Einstein’s original doctoral dissertation, published in 1905, appeared in odd juxtaposition when placed next to the Descartes translation. Entitled “A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions,” this thesis earned Einstein his doctorate from the University of Zurich that same year. Seeing the actual publication that began his extraordinary life of thought I felt what many students who come to do research in the Special Collections must feel, something much different from reading an author’s work in later editions. Of course, I had never read the dissertation before, and as Rider and I paged through, we concurred that it would take a different mind than ours to decipher the complex formulas contained therein. But simply seeing Einstein’s name on a hundred-year-old college dissertation was like finding a portal into the history of physics—and a nice reminder that we all start our careers somewhere.

Ernst Haeckel’s Wanderbilder, is a science, travel, and art book that shines with other-worldly beauty. Haeckel’s collection of oil and watercolor illustrations, published in 1905, is a portfolio; that is, the pages are not sewn together, but are contained in a typical loose-leaf binding. What exactly is a portfolio? I asked Rider, struggling to dredge up the answer from my few years of high school Latin. “Port, you know, from ‘carry,’ and folio, meaning ‘leaf,’ as in foliage.” Rider said. Featuring flamboyant scenes from his travels in the Indonesian archipelago, Wanderbilder reflects Haeckel’s interests in marine biology and zoology. Born in Potsdam in the mid-19th century, Haeckel was a staunch proponent of evolutionary theory, noted Rider. “Oh, and he was a controversial figure and somewhat of a … self-promoter, as well,” she added with a raised eyebrow.

The chronological direction of Rider’s presentation became apparent when she brought to the table a selection of college humor magazines, covering the period from the late 19th century to the present. These humor magazines often provided a satirical perspective on contemporary culture, Rider said, functioning as a sort of “mirror into the issues of the times.” An issue of Jester of Columbia from the Prohibition Era, for instance, features cartoons and satirical articles about 3.2% alcohol beer. Assembled by John and Barbara Dobbertin, the collection is “a good example of how many of the special collections come to be,” noted Rider.

John Dobbertin was editor of the University of Michigan’s Gargoyle in the early 1960s and he began collecting college humor magazines, like the Harvard Lampoon, UW’s Octopus, and the Yale Record. Rider met the Dobbertins when they helped establish at the Department of Special Collections what is today one of the largest collections of college humor magazines in the nation. Too, the Dobbertins and Rider collaborated on a special exhibition of the magazines in 2008.

At the time of the gift, John Dobbertin reminisced about the humor magazine heyday of the 1920s and ’30s. “Those covers are so terrific,” he said. “You had three future directors of university art departments producing them.”

Dobbertin went on to single out James Watrous as one of the directors producing some of the best cover art for the Octopus. Watrous, who passed away in 1999, was the artist behind the Paul Bunyan murals in Memorial Union and the mosaics at the Memorial Library entrance and in other places on campus. Watrous is also the namesake of the Wisconsin Academy’s James Watrous Gallery, located in Overture Center for the Arts in Madison.


As we finished up our journey through the Special Collections, Rider and I found ourselves contemplating the (relatively) modern and ancient aspects their holdings.

A 1946 handwritten manuscript of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac with strikeouts and arrows and other typical editing marks sat before us on the table. Revered as a native son of Wisconsin and respected across the globe for his contributions to the ecological world, Leopold has become an icon for the environmental movement (much like John Muir, another erstwhile Wisconsinite).

For some reason, staring at his manuscript, I felt even more connected to not only the visionary element of his work, but also the quality of the man’s writing. Looking at the paper and script in Leopold’s own hand, the revisions likely done in his cabin overlooking the sandy shores of the Wisconsin River, was a way of viewing where his thoughts had been born. (Editor’s Note: Most of Leopold’s papers, digitized by the UW Digital Collections Center in conjunction with the Aldo Leopold Foundation, can be found in the UW–Madison Archives.)

Quite different in content than the Leopold manuscript, yet just as revelatory, was the last item Rider brought out of the vault at my request. She had mentioned earlier that the oldest pieces in the Special Collections “are not actually books.” I had been intrigued by the references to papyri on the Special Collections website, so I asked if it would be possible to see these before my “tour” was over. Disappearing into one of the vaults, Rider arrived a few minutes later with another box.

“Now, most of our papyri are Greek. We don’t have any hieroglyphics,” she said as she drew fragments with tattered edges—encapsulated in protective lucite—from the container: one the size of a steno notebook, others the size of small Post-It notes. The lettering on the fragments—deltas, etas, and betas—was clearly recognizable. “Most are actually business records,” noted Rider. “The oldest ones we have date back to the Second Century [BCE].”

A tall, grass-like sedge that was abundant along the Nile River at one time, papyrus, when made into “paper,” seems more akin to cloth in its texture and weave. It would be replaced in the early Common Era by animal skin-based parchment and vellum. Another cheaper and abundant plant-based medium, paper, would come to be the choice of scribes and then, later, printers.

In today’s Digital Age, the Department of Special Collections, as well as many other special collection libraries around the world, have begun digitizing rare books and early printed materials in an effort to make them available to everyone at any time. Even though the thrill of actually seeing Leopold’s original handwritten draft or the papyrus scraps with the ancient script is missing when you view these items online, it’s a huge boon to students and researchers to have these resources available 24/7.

In the Special Collections lobby we hopped online to look for the English translations for a few pieces of papyrus Rider had shown me. Some were receipts for corn sales; another turned out to be a request for a draft deferment. As we sat and scrolled through papyrus images and translations, Rider told me of one digitizing project the Department of Special Collections has joined: an effort to catalog and translate the many printed papyrus fragments found in special collections around the world. A fantastic teaching and research tool for papyrologists, the project’s also works to match the fragments held in various collections in the hopes of finding related pieces that can be combined into more complete works.

Rider said they sent the Department of Special Collections’ holdings I had seen to the University of Michigan for digitalizing. “You don’t really want to have to send them too far,” she said.

These papyrus fragments may be common receipts from an ancient oxen or corn transaction, but they are also a priceless window back into another time. I could just imagine a Greek landowner’s scribe recording what I was looking at 2,200 years later. I couldn’t read the words, but I could feel the connection.

If and when this papyrus project succeeds in creating an intact facsimile papyrus scroll from bits and pieces found in special collections libraries across the country, it will be a sort of resurrection of the bygone libraries of antiquity. Too, special collections curators like Rider and librarians like Barribeau and Richards will be continuing a legacy of material preservation and stewardship of knowledge similar to their predecessors in Nineveh and Alexandria, the Yunju Temple of China, and the jungles of the Yucatán.


Visit to schedule your visit to the UW–Madison Department of Special Collections in Memorial Library and see upcoming events or check out the current exhibition:

Big Books in Special Collections on view through May 18, 2012
Ranging from botany to exploration, from antiquities to dictionaries, these books—large, thick, and sometimes both—often contain elaborate illustrations, some of which are hand-colored. The biggest of the books on display is one of the volumes of Audubon’s double elephant folio Birds of America.


James Sajdak received an MA in linguistics from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1989 and has taught English as a Second Language for more than twenty years at UW–Madison and Madison College. Since 1985 Sajdak has been writing and publishing articles about the arts, nature, and outdoor sports in Wisconsin and Canada.

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Phone: 608.733.6633


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3rd Floor, Overture Center for the Arts
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Phone: 608.733.6633 x25