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Eternal exhibits: Library's web exhibits give rare collections global exposure

If they had visited a certain basement room in a UCLA library in 2003, scholars from England’s eminent British Library might have found something of great interest to them in a temporary exhibit featuring dazzlingly decorated medieval manuscripts.
Detail of UCLA's Rouse manuscript that has a companion piece at the British Library. Researchers are still studying it to determine how long they've been separated.
Detail of one of UCLA's Rouse manuscripts, which has a companion piece at the British Library. Researchers are still studying it to determine how long they've been separated. Image courtesy of UCLA Library Special Collections.
UCLA’s Young Research Library's (YRL) downstairs exhibit room, which is dedicated to exhibiting the rare collections of the UCLA Library, displayed the centuries-old parchments for a few short months before the exhibit closed and the manuscripts were tucked back into storage. Only those who made the trip to Los Angeles to view the exhibit in YRL saw the manuscripts.
But scholars got another chance when the UCLA Library put the manuscript exhibit online in 2007. The exhibit went global, with researchers from around the world now able to access the one-of-a-kind trove that UCLA History Professor Emeritus Richard Rouse and his wife, Mary, had collected over the decades and donated to UCLA. Among the virtual viewers was a British Library scholar who recognized one of the Rouse manuscripts as a companion to a fragment in the British Library’s own collection: both were part of the same Bible, which had been divided and rebound into separate volumes. The modern technology of UCLA’s online exhibit allowed the centuries-old pieces to be considered together, even while an ocean apart, for the first time since their separation.
"Having the exhibit online allowed this document to be put back together," said Lucinda Newsome, the manager of Administrative Services and Acquisitions in UCLA Library Special Collections, who worked on the exhibit. "We’ve been putting up exhibits since the ’90s, and they attract inquiries from all over the world. The online versions really bring people’s attention not only to the exhibits, but to our collections."
Tom Hyry, Genie Guerard and Lucinda Newsome looked up the old manuscripts exhibit on a computer in YRL, where the Library's latest exhibit is currently on display.
From left to right: Tom Hyry, Genie Guerard and Lucinda Newsome looked up the old manuscripts exhibit on a computer in YRL, where the Library's latest in-person exhibit, on John Fante, is currently on display. Photo by Alison Hewitt.
The Web lets virtual visitors from around the world tour the library’s holdings and gives permanent life to what would otherwise be short-lived exhibits, said Tom Hyry, the director of Special Collections, and Manuscripts Librarian Genie Guerard, who oversees many of the library’s online exhibits.
Virtual visitors can peruse an online exhibit archive that provides links to carefully curated examples of the library’s treasures. Among them, "Wilder Shores: Lady Travelers of the 18th and 19th Century," which originally exhibited at the library in 2005, explores the realm of adventurous women who defied cultural norms to become early travel-writers. From 2004, another exhibit displays the work of Bonnie Cashin, an influential 20th century fashion designer who donated her extensive archive of design illustrations and more to UCLA. The "Baby Books Collection" exhibit, from the Biomedical Library, features UCLA’s fascinating and still-growing archive of historic baby books. Special Collections’s current exhibit on the writer John Fante, which showcases his collection at the Young Research Library, will become the next online exhibit, Hyry and Guerard said.
The library’s exhibits and collections go far beyond books. Photographs, handwritten letters, rare music and even clothing is carefully stored in climate-controlled rooms in UCLA’s Southern Regional Library Facility. Most of these materials are available for researchers to see if they have the time and ability to get to UCLA, said Stephen Davison, the head of UCLA’s Digital Library Program. Although the Digital Library doesn’t create exhibits, the rare items it posts online are used in online exhibits.
The front cover of the Gladzor Gospels.
The front cover of the Gladzor Gospels. Image courtesy of the UCLA Digital Library Program.
"People can look at things online and realize that they don’t need to come in because they can access enough online," Davison said. "For example, probably the single most valuable item the library owns is the Gladzor Gospels, an Armenian manuscript from the 14thcentury. People want to look at that as art as much as for research because it’s so beautiful. Putting things online makes them available to more visitors and it also preserves the materials."
Several different libraries form the UCLA Library — such as Special Collections, the Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library, and the Young Research Library — and together they curate the physical exhibits that later became online exhibits, said Dawn Setzer, director of Library Communications. Renovation in YRL is adding digital signage to the library, where online exhibits will also be displayed long after the physical exhibits are no longer available, Setzer said.
Digitizing a physical exhibit takes time. Library staff scan two-dimensional items like letters and photos, and take digital photographs of 3-D materials like books or clothes. Each of the images must be reviewed to make sure they’re clean, unskewed representations. In UCLA’s Digital Library, materials are often examined by the preservation department even before they get digitized, Davison said.
"If [an item] needs conservation work, they might decide to do some repairs or stabilization to prevent damage during digitization," he explained. "Of course, digitization is a form of preservation, so we try to do whatever it takes to get it."
Deborah Whiteman, a former rare-book cataloguer for UCLA Special Collections who now works at Santa Clara University’s library as head of Archives & Special Collections, curated the intriguing Wilder Shores exhibit on women travelers.
"When you do all that research and work, creating the online exhibit is a way of using all that knowledge and making it more permanent," she said. "More people can see it that way. I had requests from as far away as India from someone wanting to use one of the images we posted."
People often find the exhibits can be an introduction to UCLA’s vast collections, Whiteman said. "UCLA’s Special Collections Department has wonderful, deep collections, so because of its uniqueness and fragility and rarity, none of this material circulates." When researchers learn what’s available, some come to UCLA’s reading room, where they can examine materials they’ve paged. People travel from around the world to see UCLA’s Susan Sontag papers, or its Aldous Huxley collection, or the John Fante archives, she said.
Left, Lady Blessington. Right, Mary Wollstonecraft.
Left, Lady Blessington. Right, Mary Wollstonecraft. Both were featured in the "Wilder Shores" exhibit. Image courtesy of UCLA Library Special Collections.
When Whiteman began work on the women-travelers exhibit, based on a recent book by Barbara Hodgson, it was a relatively hidden area that few researchers had explored. That gave UCLA a prime opportunity to develop a definitive collection in the field, Whiteman said.
She pulled images of the women from the frontispieces of each writers’ book for the exhibit, and marveled at the differences. The feminist Mary Wollstonecraft "looks kind of wild and romantic and almost boyish," while Lady Marguerite Blessington appears in a delicate white lace gown, "more conservatively dressed," Whiteman said.
"But actually none of these women are conservative," she said. "Anyone who chose to travel was unusual and independent. Some of them left their husbands, or had ne’er-do-well husbands and used travel writing to support their families." One amusing example includes the Frenchwoman Jane Dieulafoy, who obtained the government’s "permission de travestissement" for horse-travel in Persia – "permission to cross-dress."    
The broad reach of the online exhibit generated more interest in early female travel writers and, Whiteman believes, gave the burgeoning field a boost.
"It’s a real legacy," Whiteman said. "It’s great to think that when you do that much work, that it’s still getting attention."
Newsome, who worked on Special Collections’ first online exhibits, said Wilder Shores remains one of the popular web collections. After the hard work curating an in-person exhibit is done, it only makes sense to transfer it online, she said.
"We have a fairly small [physical] exhibit space here, and it’s kind of an effort for most people to get to UCLA," she said. "But an online exhibit opens up that information to the whole world in perpetuity."
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