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 Duquesne University.

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.

The 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 to complete.

"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.

The 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.

Computer entries 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.