Rare Book School in  Frost Library

Harvard. Yale. The Library of Congress. Since 1983, the Virginia-based Rare Books School has led scholars, librarians, book collectors and book dealers to some of the best collections in the country.

They came to Amherst this summer.

A dozen people arrived at the Frost Library basement in June for a weeklong study of the Kim-Wait/Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection. It was the institute’s first-ever course on Native American books. Laura Perrings, program manager for the Rare Books School, says that in searching for the best place to study books by and about Native Americans, Amherst quickly came out on top.

“This,” she says, “was the place that we really wanted to go.”

For Amherst, the work started in 2013, with the purchase of the 1,400-book Pablo Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection (thanks to a gift from Younghee Kim-Wait ’82). Michael Kelly, head of Archives and Special Collections at the College, and his team went on to expand the collection—which now includes some 2,600 works published from 1772 to today.

Kelly co-taught the Rare Books course with Kiara Vigil, assistant professor of American studies, who appreciated the chance to expose the collection to a wider audience, and to establish the College as a research stop for scholars of Native and indigenous studies.

When scholars sought the best place to study books by and about Native Americans, Amherst quickly came out on top.

“This collection is exciting from a scholarly perspective,” Vigil says, “but beyond scholarship, in a wider community, I think this reshapes how you think about Amherst. This is a place that actually now can be seen as a center—as a place to go to learn about Native history, culture, tradition, from Native peoples themselves.”

The course offered a comprehensive history of Native Americans as book authors, editors, printers, publishers and consumers, and covered relevant parts of U.S. and Canadian history, taking an interdisciplinary approach.

Among other topics, Kelly and Vigil talked about the process of “decolonizing bibliography”—namely, reclaiming the Native perspective—and the phenomenon of “firsting and lasting,” or how European settlers and their descendants wrote Native Americans out of New England histories and perpetuated the myth that Native peoples had simply gone extinct.

Students examined numerous books in the collection, including the only surviving copy of the 1926 Constitution and Bylaws of the National Council of American Indians, by Zitkala Sa (Gertrude Bonnin).

“This entire collection and this entire course is like a dream come true for me,” said Mark Langenfeld, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, during his week at Amherst. He did his master’s thesis on King Philip’s War, Samson Occom and early Christian/Native American writers.

Inside Frost Library, Langenfeld laid hands on a famous Occom text: “To have Samson Occom’s Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, an Indian—to have multiple copies of that, just to see these texts and touch them—it’s so precious.”

Photo Credit: Bill Sweet