Mayor Anthony Masiello is to be commended for his recognition of the need to promote the region's cultural institutions. However, his State of the City address failed to mention the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library as an agency worthy of recognition.
Some of Buffalo's significant and often forgotten cultural and intellectual treasures are contained in the Central Library on Lafayette Square. The Grosvenor Rare Book Room houses magnificent resources of world renown, but local obscurity.
The Rare Book Collection contains a significant number of items of both local and world importance. The basis of the collection has been formed by more than 165 years of careful and dedicated librarianship. The room itself was organized in the 1940s at the Grosvenor Library in response to a theft of valuable materials.
The best and most valuable of the general collections of the Buffalo Public Library and the Grosvenor Library form the nucleus of valuable works spanning a wide range of books and manuscripts. Although rare now, many were purchased or donated as ordinary reference works of the day.
Important early local newspapers, historical documents, a Roycroft collection, early printed books and a collection of anti-slavery material make the room a researcher's delight. But materials require special precautions before being put on display.
Perhaps the most valuable item in the collection, John James Audubon's "Birds of America," was the first item purchased by the Young Men's Association Library in 1836. This collection formed the basis of what we now know as the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, and "Birds" has been on public display for many years.
As head of special collections at the library, I was in constant contact with material that scholars travel long distances to consult. I have had a 40-year love affair with fine books, and the greatest pleasures of that affair occurred in the Rare Book Room. There was a constant process of discovery in an atmosphere of quiet reverence. It is an experience that might become generally available through modern digital technology, the Internet and continued good librarianship.
The library's recent construction of the Mark Twain Room to display the handwritten manuscript of the "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is a perfect example of the effort needed to promote our treasures. In the 1970s, a popular Japanese tour book listed the library holdings of Twain's manuscript. I remember that many busloads of Asian tourists, on the way to Niagara Falls, were disappointed there were no viewing facilities for the Twain collection.
That experience illustrates, "If we tell them, they will come." The Twain Room is ready now, and many other treasures could be, with help. The security and preservation issues surrounding the access and display of rare books are complex and expensive to solve. During my years as a special collections librarian, those issues presented the most intellectually challenging problems that I encountered.
The current budget is small. The library is working toward the goal of greater access to collections, and foundation support has been significant. But additional help is needed. Perhaps it is time the city stepped up and helped with the care and promotion of priceless forgotten assets.
ROBERT M. GURN is a lifelong resident of Buffalo. He recently retired after 36 years at the library and spent the last few years supervising Special Collections and the Rare Book Room.
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