When I asked Matt Knight, the Coordinator of the University of South Florida Library Special and Digital Collections, how many pieces are held in the archives of the USF Tampa Library – I mean, individual pieces: every book, every oral history, every single piece of minutiae in the dozens of separate, smaller compilations, I got this reply:
"Boy, I wish you didn’t ask me that question - I am not sure, I mean, it’s just…" he said, his voice tailing off with an exasperated sigh.
That’s because the total is most likely in the hundreds of thousands, if not the low seven figures.
So Knight and his fellow Special Collections Librarians Andy Huse and Melanie Griffin really had their work cut out for them when they had to pick just some of those items to put on display for the public at a recent event called “A Few of Our Favorite Things.”
"The purpose of “A Few of Our Favorite Things” really is to increase awareness of the collections that we have here at USF," Knight said. "And the way to do that is to showcase some of the things that we have, let the faculty, staff, the community know what we have here in Special Collections and that these things are available for researchers to use."
The items they ended up selecting spanned both thousands of years and thousands of miles - starting with a 4,000 year old Sumerian tablet.
"It looks like it would be some trader keeping track of the accounts," Knight said, turning the small stone over to show off some faint etchings in a foreign language. "But it could also be the first poem ever written, we don’t know," he added with a laugh.
Books were of course big on the list of offerings, ranging from 16th century French explorer Jacques le Moyne’s journal documenting Florida’s Timucua Indian tribe to an original copy of Charles Dickens' 1860’s serialized novel, “Our Mutual Friend.”
"You just think it’s a novel, but that’s not how his books came out—they were all serialized. For one penny, you could get a chapter and then wait for the next one to come out," Knight said, emphasizing that the collection costs quite a bit more now than the 60-something cents it did when the books were first released.
And in the odd history category, few things could top a scale model of “Bust of a Woman,” Pablo Picasso’s 120 foot tall sculpture that was going to be built on the USF campus in the early 1970’s.
"(The) problem was fundraising," Knight said as he thumbed through a University program from that time describing the project. "They set a floor on the donations that could come in and for that reason, they just weren’t able to raise enough from corporations or wealthy individuals, and the project just fell apart. They tried to revive it a few years later at about sixty feet, but that didn’t work."
Visitors also were able to tour the inner sanctum of the archives, where rows and rows of bookshelves resting behind a locked gate hold countless boxes labeled "USF Photo Collection," “Dime Novel Collection” or “Gonzmart Family and Columbia Restaurant Collection,” after the famed Tampa eatery and its creators.
Anyone - student or not - can access these collections. Librarian Andy Huse says that’s what makes the university's archives different from that of a museum.
"A museum is a private collection, you’re not really meant to access it, you’re just meant to look at it behind glass. What we offer is for people to actually use the materials, to feel them in their hands if they like, to do research and to get a little more intimate with the objects," Huse said.
That intimacy seems almost opposite of what you'd expect with such delicate pieces of history, a fact I pointed out to Knight when I saw him turning the pages of 400-year-old sacred tomes with his bare hands.
"Best practices now show that wearing gloves minimizes the dexterity and a lot more people are going to rip pages if they have the gloves on than if they have good clean hands," he replied.
A large portion of the archives comes from private donations. A few years back, memorabilia dealer John Osterweil gave the library some quintessential Tampa artifacts: a collection of cigar labels, bands and other cigar-related artifacts.
"I wanted to have my collection in the hands of folks that would find some value for it. I thought maybe by donating to the University, it would afford the students an opportunity to learn more about the great cigar industry that’s been in Tampa for a hundred years," he said.
Knight hopes that people realize that that’s what makes the Special Collections so special – something that you think is junk could actually be priceless to someone else’s research purposes.
"You just never know what people have got, and they may say that these are the diaries that I think will be important, but what really is tremendous is they’ve got a 4,000 year old Sumerian clay tablet in the box, you just never know," he said.