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Monday, December 11, 2023
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UB's Hidden Crown Jewel

On the fourth floor of Capen Hall there sits a mysterious room. Its contents are invaluable, cryptic, and the subject of study by some of the world's most renowned scholars.

Just what is it?

The Rare Book/Special Poetry Collection.

Unknown to many at UB, 420 Capen Hall is an academic gem on North Campus, and continues to attract worldwide attention as a one-of-a-kind collection. What began nearly a century ago as a donation of rare books from Thomas B. Lockwood has since grown to become a complete, unique archive of Anglophone poetry dating back to 1900.

"For any moment in history from the last 112 years, you can acquire a snapshot of where poetry in English was at a particular time," said Michael Basinski, curator of the Collection.

Basisnki explained that the collection is particularly distinctive because of its dedication to collecting not only first-edition collections of poetry, but "little magazines," manuscripts, journals, etc. These rare texts make the collection ultimately more valuable in terms of scholarly research and money.

"The Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower could be rebuilt; you could put a value on them if you had to – but would anyone do that?" Basinski said. "The Collection is like a monument in that sense."

According to him, the Collection is priceless, and impossible to duplicate.

For an idea of just how much it's all worth, one need only take a small glance at the Collection's most prized possession – the Joyce Collection. James Joyce is considered to be one of the most significant novelists of the 20th Century, and the UB Special Poetry Collection houses the largest accumulation of his work in the world. Nine pages of original text from his novel Finnegans Wake sold for over $6 million at auction. The Collection houses over 10,000 pages of original Joyce text.

The study area of 420 Capen helps set the scholarly atmosphere: paintings grace the walls, while glass display cases brim with artifacts and collectible items.

That being said, the Special Poetry Collections room is off limits to those who are not using the archive for research. None of the material being examined can leave the room, and there are specific rules on how they must be handled.

Upon entering, students must hang up their belongings and may only use pencils on their desks while studying the text, which is retrieved and brought out by a librarian at the desk. No drinks, no pens. Nothing.

For these reasons, the Collection is truly only accessible to those students who study literature and are doing research on a very specific area of text.

"What's important is that the collection stays here for those who do use it. What's an engineering student going to do here if he isn't studying literature? But if you do need it, it's here for you," Basinski said.

For the most part, those who use the collection are graduate and occasionally undergraduate students studying literature; but also professors, patrons from the area, and international scholars.

"It's a really mellow environment," said Maria Manunta, a sophomore English and philosophy major, who first visited the Collection this semester with her American Poetry Class. "The artwork is amazing and the people there were really nice. I had no idea about the collection before I went there for class, but most people don't."

The Collection currently has many of its visual poetry items on display in an exhibit at the Center For the Arts entitled: "Language To Cover A Wall." The exhibit will be there until Feb. 18 and is a good place for students interested in the Collection to start, before they visit the rare compilation that is 420 Capen.




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