Interview By Anna
Photos by Brad Talbutt
Tuesday, March 23 Edition
Archivist Alan Virta tends
Boise State’s “Special Collections” department at
Albertson’s Library. This is the receptacle of matter —
mostly but not exclusively 2-D matter — that isn’t
suited for regular library shelving. There are the usual
historical paper documents you’d expect. There are also
a few items — like patches of blue Astroturf, a walking
stick and menus from swank society dinner parties — that
you might not.
Give us a quick overview
of “Special Collections” ... what it is, what its role
is among the library’s other collections.
Special Collections is 30
years old. It’s a department of the main campus library.
Our role is to provide special handling for rare items,
highly valuable items, prized items. Our focus is Idaho,
documenting the history and culture of the state ... and
that goes for government, politics, history, literature
and the environment.
The collection includes
fiction and non-fiction books about the state, and
manuscript collections — or the personal papers of
individuals — plus records of organizations and
What kind of archival
storage is available for delicate items?
Our storage room is on campus
and is sort of like a vault. It’s 4,000 square feet
[roughly the size of two 1950s ranchettes in West
Boise]. It has its own heating and cooling system. We
keep it at 68 degrees, 45 percent relative humidity —
the best atmosphere for keeping paper.
How did you get involved
with this work?
I got a BA in history at the
University of Maryland and enjoyed the research so much
that I got my masters of library science. I worked at
the Library of Congress for 12 years cataloging
manuscripts. Then I spent a year on a fellowship at a
university in Southern Mississippi. I enjoyed being on a
campus and started looking around for a special
collections job at a university. This one happened to be
open, and I’ve been here since 1988.
Were you drawn to work
with historical documents because you have a certain
Since grade school, my
favorite subject has been history. It’s just natural to
me, working with historical materials. They’re the real
stuff of history, and so much more interesting than
working with books. This is the material, after all,
that the history books are based on.
When I was a child, my
grandparents lived in a 100-year-old house in Ohio. My
grandfather’s grandfather built it. There were old
papers and letters in all the drawers from people who
were long deceased. It was always interesting to me to
read these old letters, some from the Civil War. That, I
think, is what spurred my interest in history, and it
continued through college. To be able to hold documents
from the 1600s in my hands and read them was something
that really cemented my love for this work.
What was the first item
catalogued in the Boise State collection?
When Len Jordan retired from
the U.S. Senate in 1973, he gave 250 boxes of his
records to the college. The documents covered the years
1962 to 1970. The Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Act of
1964, legislation for the Sawtooth National Recreation
Area — those were some of the big issues of Jordan’s
In 1974, the college created
the Special Collections unit to deal with his papers. In
1984, Sen. Frank Church donated his personal papers
which covered the period between 1956 and1980. We’re
talking 800 boxes, documents about the Panama Canal
treaties, the Wilderness Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers
Church, of course, also
investigated the CIA and the FBI ... but those records
stayed behind in Washington. We often have people
calling us who think we have boxes of raw CIA documents.
[the collection also holds the papers of Cecil Andrus
and Larry LaRocco.]
How do you deal with such
a large volume of material?
We go through everything, box
by box. We catalog and index each file folder then make
them available to researchers. Much of our work is
cataloging and indexing.
What’s the newest item in
We acquired a single letter
written by Mary Hallock Foote. She was an Idaho author
and illustrator, quite a popular novelist in the 1880s
and ‘90s. She and her husband, an engineer, lived out in
a stone house near Lucky Peak. There were times when
Foote would be out there for months without getting into
Boise. The letter, which she wrote in 1887, was about
women’s suffrage. The text of the letter is kind of
interesting. She wrote that she wasn’t “entirely in
sympathy” with the suffrage movement.
The letter came up for sale
at a document sale. We thought it should be in Idaho and
a private donor provided the funding. I’ve put the
letter up on the Web so everyone can see it. (Check it
What’s your favorite item
in the collection?
One of my favorites is our
oldest book, “Historia Scholastica.” It was printed in
1489 when the printing press had only been around for
about 35 years. It was written in Latin, printed in
Germany. The text had actually been around for hundreds
of years before that, circulated in manuscript form. The
“Historia” was a standard text used in European
universities until the 1600s.
The book is beautiful. You’d
call it oversized. The paper was made from rags and
cloth, so it’s free of acid. The paper’s in beautiful
shape, firm and strong. And it has handwriting in some
of the margins ... so somebody between 1489 and now was
How did this book end up
in Boise State’s collection?
Our longtime head librarian,
Miss Ruth McBirney, went on a trip to England in the
1950s. She decided Boise Junior College needed
representative samples of books from all centuries. The
rare book trade wasn’t as expensive as it is now and she
was able, with college funding, to buy quite a parcel of
books. Back then she paid 20 pounds sterling for
“Historia Scholastica.” There are only about five or
six other copies of the edition we have in other U.S.
libraries, so it’s rare. And the book never really comes
up on the market, so it’s hard to estimate how much it’s
We’ve had art students come
in to look at the illumination, the hand coloring of the
initial letters. Though the text was done on the press,
the initial letters were hand-done and are somewhat
ornate. Miss McBirney also gave us, from her personal
collection, a page of illuminated manuscript which was
all done by hand, with gold leaf. It’s very ornate and
dates around the same time as “Historia.”
What is the strangest item
in the collection?
We have a fraternity pub
crawl trophy made of beer cans. We also have all the
files of Dr. Chaffee, who was president of Boise Junior
College from 1936-67. His records included several files
labeled “student discipline problems.” In one of them
was a 1939 newsletter of the Boise cell of the Communist
Party. I’ve asked other librarians if they have anything
like this, and no one does. I imagine there was an
organizer on campus handing out literature ... and it
rested in Chaffee’s files for about 60 years until we
We have a letter written
by Buffalo Bill Cody to the Episcopal Bishop of Idaho in
which he gives a donation to help build a church in Cody
Other odd things ... we get
these miniature books with tassels and tiny pencils
attached. We like to ask students what they think they
are. They’re dance cards, partially filled in. The
concept of going to a dance and signing up who you’re
going to dance with beforehand is foreign to people
Another interesting thing ...
Clara Spiegel, who was the ex-wife of Spiegel catalog
people, moved to Sun Valley in 1937. She was a novelist,
a hunter, a personal friend of Hemingway. “Town and
Country” magazine called her “the grande dame of Sun
Valley Society.” She died in 1997 and we have all her
personal papers. They include her formal dinner party
albums with drawings of her seating plans. She kept
records of all her menus, all her guests. The albums
extend from the 1950s to the early ‘90s ... often, she’d
have a couple dinner parties a week.
She also kept elaborate
travel journals. She cruised the Mediterranean in the
1920s and her logs are full of insights into the
personalities of her fellow passengers, comments about
the local scenery. They’re very literary, very fun to
We have a letter to Sen.
Frank Church from Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother, saying her
son was innocent.
We also have samples of the
blue turf as well as a sample of the green turf that
Anything really sinister
in the collection?
We have the toxicology
reports on the husband/victims of Lyda Southard [aka
“Idaho’s Lady Bluebeard]. After several of her husbands
died, they dug them up and found arsenic in all of them.
The collection contains
photo-graphs as well?
Robert Limbert, who built
Redfish Lake Lodge in 1928, was one of the early
explorers of the Sawtooth Mountains [as well as being
the father of Margaret Lawrence of Hollywood Market,
mayoral recall fame]. Limbert was also the first person
to do a systematic exploration of Craters of the Moon.
An article he wrote for “National Geographic” in the
1920s is credited with getting President Coolidge to
designate Craters of the Moon as a national monument.
We have Limbert’s photographs
from the ‘20s of the Sawtooths, the Craters and Bruneau
Limbert was a taxidermist by
trade, and we have some gruesome pictures of his
taxidermy in progress. There’s a picture of a legless
horse whom our student workers dubbed “Stubby.” They
liked the picture ... but it makes certain members of
the staff run out of the room.
Is there an item one would
never expect to find in a university’s special
We have a small collection of
lava rocks that go along with a geology dissertation. We
have all sorts of gifts and presentation items given to
Frank Church and Cecil Andrus, including things like a
walking stick ... and lots of keys to cities. We also
have a bottle of crude oil from the Baltimore Canyon,
presented to Andrus when he was Secretary of the
Interior in the ‘70s.
If you could add anything
to the collection, what would it be?
We’re always looking to build
on our strengths, Idaho politics and government, public
policy, Idaho writers, environmental history ... that’s
what we emphasize.
But if there were any one
thing, of course, it would be the “secret” map to all
the so-called Chinese tunnels. The tunnels are really a
myth, but people contact us all the time about them.
They want the maps. They want to believe.
SEE IT FOR YOURSELF:
BSU’s Special Collections are
available for the public to see.
Hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday
through Friday on the second floor of Albertson’s
Library at Boise State.
Advance appointments are
recommended, because some items are in storage. Virta
says that while the university does not want to put up
barriers to the collection, the library staff might
interview members of the public before making certain
materials available —just to make sure they’re the most
appropriate for a given research project.