In the Special Collections
Room with Archivist Gregory M. Priore
The William R. Oliver Special Collections Room now includes an Archive for Carnegie
Institute and Library
by Mark Petruzzini
On the third floor of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in Oakland, tucked away behind
the Science and Technology Department, is a room containing Bach's first manuscript,
a first edition Charlotte Bronte, and other rare and valuable items--a collection
now under the supervision of archivist Gregory M. Priore. Four years ago the library
began to reorganize its archive of 22,000 rare books and special collection items
and appointed Priore as archivist. He had worked for the library's Pennsylvania Department
for four years, immediately after graduating with a masters degree in History from
In 1987, library director Robert Croneberger and former
Carnegie president Robert Wilburn set out to establish an institutional archive in
time for the 1995 Centennial. Priore, who had an interest in archives management,
was given the responsibility in 1989. He studied archives management under the head
of the archival program at the University of Pittsburgh, Richard Cox, a well-known
figure in the field, and in 1991 received an advanced certificate in archives management.
room that now houses the rare book collection and historical material about The Carnegie
has been greatly changed. Formerly a storage space where librarians kept a wide range
of books, including accounts of the occult and witchcraft (books that librarians feared
might be stolen), was then known as "The Wadsworth Room"--an unofficial
title coined after a benefactor who made generous contributions, especially in the
area of Science and Technology, in the 1930's and 40's.
In developing the archive,
Priore established a team to examine the volumes in the collection. Sally Buchanan,
a preservation expert from the University of Pittsburgh's School of Library and Information
Science, worked with six preservation students to provide a preservation assessment
for each book. Rare book specialists Donnis deCamp and Marc Salvaggio of Schoyer's
Books provided a monetary assessment of the collection. The appraisal took five months
"The study was startling," Priore recalls. "We
discovered that next to the New York Public Library we had the highest rate of brittle
paper on the eastern seaboard, because all this material was out in the stacks where
it suffered from almost 90 years of Pittsburgh dirt and soot. The collection probably
would be worth double the amount of money if it had been kept in better shape."
Donnis deCamp, however, described the collection's deterioration as "not unusual,"
but flagged a number of works that needed repair.
The room itself was transformed.
Windows were blocked off to prevent damage from sunlight. Wooden shelves that could
create acidity were replaced by metal stacks, and special lighting that is safe for
the collection was installed. A state-of-the-art security system was installed.
room used to be open to staff during regular library hours. But as with any institutional
archive, these policies had to change--the hours of operation became 9:00 a.m. - 5:00
p.m. on weekdays, or by appointment.
On August 13, 1992, Priore and others
were pleased to honor long- time friend and benefactor William R. Oliver by naming
the room after him for his over 40 years of fellowship and service to the library.
Priore warmly remembers the dedication to Oliver: "He really took it to heart.
Up until his death he was always trying to think of ways to improve the room and he
took it very seriously that the room was named after him." An avid fisherman,
Oliver donated several of his fishing rods to the room, where they add a personal
reminder of this bibliophile and friend.
Public interest in the room has risen
steadily. Oliver's friends have made contributions to the room in his name. Docent
tours of the library now routinely visit the Oliver Room twice a week, so patrons
can learn about the operation. In 1993, WPXI television featured the room in a story.
Priore's activity has dramatically increased as well.
"People who come
to the room are mostly researchers," Priore says, "but some come because
they heard about it and are curious." The lure of the antiquities draws many
who have heard about the handed-down Bach manuscript--the first known writing of the
composer--and of the many autographs, like Abraham Lincoln's.
of the books in the Oliver Room are being indexed on CAROLINE, the library's on-line
book database. Eventually, Priore would like to publish a booklet that describes the
collection for the public.
Although the library does not actively seek new
works to fill its collection, its growth is steady. Some works are acquired monthly
through donations, or an occasional find in one of the library's stacks. The library
last purchased a rare work in the 1960's when it bought the Forty Folios of Edward
Curtis--a photographer commissioned by Theodore Roosevelt, J. P. Morgan and Andrew
Carnegie (among others) to take pictures of Native Americans and Eskimos. The photographs
form one of only 270 sets created.
Priore accepts items for the Oliver Room
which are unique for rarity, historical importance, or preservation needs. The oldest
piece in the collection is a 1477 Bible, and the later works date through to the late
19th century. Many are first editions, manuscripts or autographed documents. But age
is not the sole factor of worth or historical value. If he were presented with an
autographed copy of a contemporary well-known author, such as Stephen King, Priore
says he would probably take it--since he considers whether the works will eventually
become rare or unusual.
The William R. Oliver Special Collections Room has
evolved dramatically in only a few years, and Priore has received an increasing number
of inquiries about the history of Carnegie Institute and Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.
The 100th anniversary has had an impact on his work: "The Centennial developed
an awareness. I can remember getting 15 calls a month . . . now I'm getting 90 to
100 phone calls a month."
Mark Petruzzini is majoring in English
at Carnegie Mellon University.