The Faculty and Staff Newsletter for Boise State University







Thursday, March 25, 2004

Thrive Interviews Boise State Archivist Alan Virta 
Alan Virta stands on a slice of the Albertsons Stadium blue while holding a chunk of the previous green turf from the BSU Special Collections Library.
Personal correspondence from Buffalo Bill Cody to the then Episcopal bishop of Idaho.

The stats

Name: Alan Virta

Occupation: Archivist, head of Special Collections, Albertson’s Library at Boise State University

What else? Outside the library, Virta collects postcards of “Boise buildings and scenes that aren’t there anymore,” like the old City Hall and the Pinney Theater. One of his favorites is a card from the 1940s of the Chesapeake Cafe, formerly of 9th Street. “I grew up in Maryland and miss steamed Chesapeake blue crabs,” says Virta, “that’s why I love that postcard.”

Interview By Anna Webb
Photos by Brad Talbutt
From Thrive's 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 university archives.

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 temperament?

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 era.

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 Act ...

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 the collection?

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 out: http://library.boisestate.edu/Special/footeletter.htm

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 taking notes.

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 worth.

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 noticed it.

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 these days.

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 read.

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 proceeded it.

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 Canyon.

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 collection?

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.


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.

Edition Date: 03-23-2004