Frost Library acquires rare and comprehensive Native American book collection

Submitted on Friday, 9/20/2013, at 4:45 PM

By Peter Rooney

Amherst College’s Frost Library has acquired what experts consider to be the most complete collection of Native American literature and history in existence, ranging from religious pamphlets published before the United States officially existed to first-edition novels by noted crime novelist Martin Cruz Smith.

Although just announced this week, the Pablo Eisenberg Collection of Native American Literature was acquired in August. It will be renamed the Younghee Kim-Wait ’82 Pablo Eisenberg Collection to honor the financial support of alumna Younghee Kim-Wait ’82, whose generous gift helped make the acquisition possible. Book dealer Ken Lopez of Hadley, Mass. assisted in brokering the sale.

examining the collection

Examining the collection

“This collection is significant because it is a collection of works written by Native Americans,” said College Librarian Bryn Geffert. “It presents a unique opportunity for Native American Studies scholars here at Amherst and elsewhere to mine the most complete collection ever compiled by a single collector.”

Two Amherst professors who are Native American Studies scholars and have begun helping unpack the collection from its 32 boxes say they are astounded by the intellectual treasures it holds.

“Since the collection arrived, it is difficult to describe how it has felt – like suddenly being amidst a seemingly infinite living sea, a literary and intellectual tradition that I have been studying and teaching, immersed in, my whole life,” said Lisa Brooks, associate professor of English and American Studies at Amherst College, and co-chair of the Five Colleges Native American Indian Studies program.

“It is one thing to know it exists, to write about the authors, the networks between them, to teach them in classes, to once in a while, hold a first edition, signed by the author, in your hands,” Brooks added. “It is another to experience that immersion, physically surrounded by these books – some of them hundreds of years old, in perfect condition -- and to see that vast network all around you, to visibly see the connections between them, to hold one book after the other in your hands, the pages opening before you, inviting you to know, to understand more.”

Holding and examining documents written by key figures in Native American history has been an emotional experience, said Kiara Vigil, an assistant professor of American Studies at Amherst.

“I was brought to tears upon finding an original handbook of the Constitutional by-laws for the National Council of American Indians, created and founded by Gertrude Bonnin in 1926,” Vigil said. “Bonnin’s life and writings are central to my first book on turn-of-the-20th-century Native intellectuals. As far as I know no other archival collection, including those that have Bonnin’s personal papers, have a copy of this particular document.”

Professors Vigil and Brooks react

Professors Vigil (L) and Brooks (R)

The collection is composed of nearly 1,500 volumes written by American Indian writers from the 1700s to the 21st century – including myths and legends, tribal histories, religious tracts, biographies and memoirs, fiction, poetry, drama and historical and political writings. It includes nearly 600 volumes of nonfiction and almost 900 volumes of literary works. According to Michael Kelly, director of archives and special collections at Amherst, the collection includes hundreds of items not held by any of the major collections of Native materials in North America, including at Harvard and Yale.

“If you read or hear about a book about any American Indian author from the 19th and 20th Century, I don’t even have to look – we have it,” said Michael Kelly, Frost Library’s head of Archives and Special Collections. “The comprehensive nature of the collection is what makes it special. We have the Native American authors you’ve heard of and for every Native American author you’ve heard of there are two dozen you haven’t heard of whose books we also now have.” (For a link with more information about the collection’s holdings, go here.)

Brooks agreed, calling the collection “startling” in its range and comprehensiveness. “It represents a vast knowledge of the depth and complexity of an indigenous American literary tradition that so many people do not even realize exists,” she said.

What is especially exciting to the two professors, Frost librarians and the donor alike is the relevance of the collection to the classroom. Brooks is planning a course focused on Native American literature and intellectual traditions, while Vigil is planning a seminar course called “History of the Native Book.’

“In this class students will be able to compare different editions of rare books by Native authors from the 18th century to today,” Vigil said. “Not only will they learn about book studies, Native histories, and the intersection between American Studies and Native Studies, but in many cases because of the scope of this collection it is likely that they will be able to conduct original research.”

One recent morning, Danielle Trevino ’14 met with Brooks, Vigil and Kelly to review the collection. Trevino later said she is very impressed with what she saw, and plans to tap into the collection as she writes her senior honors thesis.

michael kelly

Michael Kelly (C), with Brooks, (L) and Vigil (R)

“My thesis focuses heavily on contextualizing early 20th-century Osage life as a way of understanding social tensions affecting Osage author and politician John Joseph Mathews,” she said. “The collection includes some of his writing, but it's difficult to evaluate how much of it will be used in my thesis. Even as my professors and I were exploring the books laid out for us, there were boxes upon boxes stacked along the back wall of the reading room. I have a feeling there must be some sort of buried thesis treasure in there.”

Trevino added she has great hopes that the collection will play a key role in invigorating Native American Studies, at Amherst and elsewhere.

“My hope is that researchers will begin to see Amherst as a crucial place for this kind of work and will bring new perspectives to our academic and cultural environments,” she said.

That of course is music to Geffert's ears.

“As a librarian, nothing is so gratifying as seeing acquisitions promote and enliven the work of our faculty and students,” he said.

Kelly, who is planning a January exhibition (at Frost and online) of highlights from the collection, agreed.

“This is exactly how collection development should work – to serve the interests of faculty and students,” Kelly said. “We had almost nothing in this area before, and now we have a world class collection that we could not have accumulated on our own.”