Inside the Bancroft

Campus's Repository for Rare and Ancient Volumes Covers 4,500 Years of the Written Word by Jacqueline Frost

Anthony Bliss, curator of rare books at the Bancroft Library, carefully unlocks a metal gate leading into a dimly lit room that houses a rare collection of medieval texts, 2,000-year-old papyri and dozens of first-edition classics.

Bliss adjusts one of several fans strategically placed to circulate air in the windowless room. Plastic shields on the florescent lights overhead protect the irreplaceable collection from damaging ultraviolet rays. Air vents are covered with cloth to reduce dust.

"You can take all these precautions, and accidents can still happen," Bliss said, referring to a sprinkler that sprung a leak on the roof of the library last November.

The leak sent water down an air ventilation shaft onto walls and shelves nine tiers below. By the time the leak was discovered, some 200 volumes were damaged.

"Fortunately, we were lucky," Bliss said. "It could have been a lot worse."

One of California's foremost libraries of western North American history, the Bancroft Library also houses one of the country's most important collections of rare books, the University Archives and the world's largest collection of Mark Twain's notes, letters and writings.

The library began as a private collection of Hubert Howe Bancroft, a San Francisco publisher who in the 1860s sought to compile the "definitive history of California." It was moved across the bay to the Berkeley campus after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Bancroft acquisitions are largely gifts and bequests to the library. It also accepts rare and old material from the other university libraries. Bliss said books printed prior to 1801 automatically become custody of Bancroft.

"We cover roughly 4,500 years of material, from stone tablets all the way to compact discs and videos," he added. "Copies from the Bancroft collection we want to keep for another 4,000 years. This stuff is not replaceable."

Bancroft has one of the largest collections of ancient papyrus in the country and text from such famous writings as Homer's "Odyssey."

"We try to bring together in one place as comprehensive a collection as possible," said Bliss, pointing to 18th century literature on one stack and books by African-American Bay Area authors on another.

All told, there are some 450,000 volumes, 54 million manuscripts, 2.3 million photographs, 67,000 microfilms and 21,000 maps. All material is catalogued online.

About half of the daily visitors are from the university. Others are visiting scholars.The library's rules are strict: No one under 18 can use the library; nothing can be checked out; no pens are permitted.

Security measures include secret alarm systems. Only designated staff are allowed in the locked rare book stacks. Elevators require a key. Bags, purses, coats and backpacks are stored in lockers outside the library.

Bliss said that one of the most important aspects of his job is protecting the collections. "The key is to maintain a balance between preservation and use," he said.

Bancroft staff preserve rare collections with the help of the campus's renowned library conservation department. Refurbished books and other materials are stored in specially designed boxes constructed of acid-free paper, which serve as a protective barrier in case of fire or flooding.


Copyright 1996, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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