Special Collections and University Archives History

The Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) is a renowned rare book and special collections repository at the University of Oregon. Special Collections and University Archives grew from the work of the History Department, which began collecting materials about Oregon history shortly after the University was founded in 1876. The Oregon Collection began in earnest, to celebrate the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, with oversight by the social activist and advocate for American folk arts, Allen Eaton. It formed the nucleus of the Rare Book collection, augmented in the 1930s, by significant donations of Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts and Incunabula by Edward Sanford Burgess.

From 1938-1943, John Henry Nash formed the University of Oregon Library Press where he supervised the design and composition of books selected by students. Special Collections was formally created in 1947 as a library department to acquire manuscript, book, and photograph collections under the leadership of Curator of Special Collection, Martin Schmitt, who was the recipient of the 1972 Waldo Gifford Leland Prize for the Catalogue of Manuscripts in the University of Oregon Library. This volume is still considered one of the most comprehensive and detailed catalogs of literary and historical manuscripts ever published. Schmitt partnered with Edward Kemp, Acquisitions Librarian, to acquire manuscript collections from individuals around the world. Kemp’s work, Manuscript Solicitation for Libraries, Special Collections, Museums, and Archives (1978) laid out the first systematic approach to acquiring manuscripts for institutional collections. In 1969, Kenneth Duckett, the renown manuscripts librarian and then director of SCUA, wrote an award-winning work titled, Modern Manuscripts: A Practical Manual for their Management, Care and Use (1975).

In 1948, the Special Collections was named the official repository for permanent University records. After decades of neglect and under-staffing, the Records Management operation to administer non-permanent records of the University were officially separated from SCUA in 2015 and placed administratively under the Office of General Counsel.

Each year, the SCUA acquires thousands of unique manuscripts, books, photographs, and other printed materials, which are vital in the research of students and scholars both nationally and internationally. Its archival holdings include the papers of America’s most recognized authors, such as Ken Kesey and Ursula Le Guin. The manuscript holdings also contain the records of Utopian communities, LGBTQ populations, environmental organizations, independent film producers, women missionaries to China, and pioneer-settlers, to name but a few. The rare book collection of 200,000 titles contains over 100 incunabula, 75 Medieval and Renaissance codices, works of every major fine press in England and America (including every work by John Henry Nash), an incomparable Oregon Collection, and a comprehensive collection of Pacific Northwest poets. The SCUA is also home to some of America’s most accomplished photographers, including Charles W. Furlong, Edward S. Curtis, Doris Ulmann, Tee Corinne, and Jacqueline Moreau. University Archives works in tandem with Records Management and the Library Institutional Repository to ensure that the University’s permanent records, in both electronic and analog form, are captured, preserved and made accessible. The history of the university is explored in broad stokes in our Frequently Asked University History Questions.

Special Collections is housed in the 1937 portion of the Knight Library. Librarian M.H. Douglass campaigned for construction of the building, as Fenton Hall had become woefully inadequate. Designed by architecture dean and campus architect Ellis Lawrence, and built under the auspices of the WPA, the structure has been described as "one of Oregon's best examples of the integrated art and architecture that characterized that last great surge of public building." The original structure was expanded in 1950 and 1966, and expanded, renovated, and renamed in 1993-1995. The Knight Library is on the National Register of Historic Buildings. The stacks were renovated in 2017 with temperature and humidity controls added to all storage areas.

The main space, which features a high ceiling and fine natural light from the ample north-facing windows, has always been used as a reading room. When the building opened in May 1937 it was the Open Shelf Reading Room, and later the Upper Division Reading Room. At each end are cedar panels carved by Art Clough, with the assistance of Ross McClure and Jim de Broekart. In 2006, the room was renamed in honor of a donor, the Paulson Investment Company, Inc. The room underwent a major renovation in 2019 to include new carpet and furniture, task lighting for researchers, public computers and a new reference desk. New exhibit cases were also added to enhance the display of collections and build on an active exhibition program.