CHADRON – A trip to Indiana University's Lilly Library in May gave a Chadron State College student and a faculty member an opportunity to view and touch some of the historic pieces of literature that have shaped the culture of the English-speaking world, as well as a chance to access primary research materials for their writing projects.
The trip to the prestigious library by Assistant Professor Dr. Mary Clai Jones and senior Rachel Mitchell of Riverton, Wyoming, was part of an upper level independent study course about women traveling. It was also an opportunity for Jones to conduct research for a book analyzing women’s mobility in the Victorian era. Grants from the CSC Research Institute Committee and the Dean’s Council funded the weeklong excursion to Bloomington, Indiana.
The Lilly Library collection includes more than 450,000 rare books, more than eight million manuscripts, and 150,000 sheets of music. Among the items in the library are a Gutenberg New Testament, the first printed edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, personal archives of Orson Welles, Sylvia Plath, and Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Thomas Jefferson’s personal copy of the first printing of the Bill of Rights, and a 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays.
“At the Lilly Library we took advantage of finding out what treasures they had in their archives. They had a handful of extremely rare pieces of history,” Mitchell said. “I got to hold and read the very first bound edition of Shakespeare’s complete works, held a 2000 BCE cuneiform tablet written in Babylonian, and held the first copies of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.”
Initially two students were to go on the trip in order to learn about primary research by assisting in the women’s travel project, but one had to drop out for personal reasons, said Jones. After a short time in the library reading room, it was clear that Mitchell was well prepared and able to pursue her own research on Conan Doyle’s famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, she said.
“I held a handwritten letter by Arthur Conan Doyle that he signed,” said Mitchell. “With the help of the librarians, we made the absolute most out of the trip.”
Mitchell said she will use results of her research for a conference of the North American Victorian Studies Association in October, where she hopes to present her work.
“I’m hoping this will help put me above the rest and stand out,” she said.
After completing undergraduate work at CSC, Mitchell plans to earn a doctorate in English literature, with an emphasis in Native American literature.
“I hope to become a teacher at a university and have some of my own critical and creative works published,” she said. “I feel absolutely blessed by the experience to look (at) and touch pieces of literature that were so crucial to history. The college has allowed me to achieve life goals at a very young age. I won’t forget the life-changing experience and couldn’t be more thankful to have been chosen to go.”
Jones was familiar with the Lilly Library from attending a writers’ conference there while studying for her Doctor of Philosophy degree, and wanted to access the institution’s collection of 18th and 19th century women’s literature, particularly travel guides and travelogues from the time. Though an initial request for books and manuscripts pertaining to women’s travel experiences in the U.S. and Europe wasn’t productive, she said a librarian directed her to a trove of letters written by American expatriate and writer Mary Barenson, among other things.
“The most fun materials I got to sift through were pamphlets, brochures, calendars, ads, and maps…focused on bicycle ephemera from the 1870s to the 1920s,” Jones said.
For Jones, access to letters home from American women living abroad, some private travel diaries, and materials about women’s journeys by bike from the library’s online exhibit called “The World Awheel” will be valuable for specific chapters of her book project.
“These vital ethnographic materials regarding women’s journeys through public space help me examine its subversive and disruptive effects,” she said.