A Rare Collection of Spanish Plays at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Paula Mae Carns
Specialist for Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, UIUC

Linde Brocato
Assistant, Spanish Play Project, UIUC

WESS Newsletter
Fall 2006
Vol. 30, no. 1

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The University of Illinois Library at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) has recently "discovered" amongst its vast holdings in the Main Stacks a collection of rare Spanish plays dating from the late eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. Librarians and staff working in the Stacks have long known about these materials. However, primarily concerned with circulation issues and lacking subject specialization, they failed to recognize their value and perceived them to be merely another large set of older miscellaneous works. The plays were found last year when Central Circulation, hoping to send them to the Library's newly-built remote storage facility, brought them to the attention of Karen Schmidt, then Associate University Librarian for Collections, who, in turn, alerted me, the subject specialist for Spanish, Italian and Portuguese language and literature outside of Latin America at the Modern Languages and Linguistics Library (ML&L Library). I was completely unaware of their existence both because I am relatively new to my position (hired Dec. 2003) and because they have been housed in an out-of-the way corner of the Stacks‚ basement separated from other Spanish materials. A check of a couple dozen or so titles in WorldCat and the Biblioteca nacional de España's online catalogue as well as in printed bibliographies quickly revealed that few other libraries in the world possess such a rich and unique collection. Indeed, a good number of them seem to survive only at UIUC. The discovery of the plays has given rise to the Spanish Play Project. This short essay will describe the collection, outline what is currently known about its history and treatment, and explain the Project to date. As we process the plays, our knowledge about them continues to grow.

Nature of the Collection

            A cursory appraisal of the collection suggests that it contains some 16,000 items relating to Spanish drama with the contents falling into two general categories: late eighteenth through mid-twentieth-century primary source material and twentieth-century secondary material, with the former far exceeding the latter. The primary sources include: prompter's copies, author-signed copies, author- and composer-signed copies (for some musical productions), late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century comedias sueltas (the Spanish equivalent of a chapbook), bilingual editions (usually Italian and Spanish), and Catalan texts. Some were issued as serials. The marginalia, modifications for performance, or signatures and stamps (for example, from Spanish theatrical archives) that appear on many of the plays make them rare. Scholars in the areas of literary studies, theater history, printing history, book history, and art history will find the collection a rich source of material.

History of the Collection

The origin of the Spanish Play Collection has been relatively easy to determine. Archival records, circumstantial evidence and living memory tell us much about this stage of the acquisition process. The development of the collection seems to have begun as early as 1957. In Library annual reports from the early 1960s Robert Downs, then University Librarian, describes Professor James O. Crosby, faculty in the Department of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese at UIUC from 1955-68, as the "architect" of the collection. In a recent conversation Prof. Crosby explained how he and Helen Welch, Head of the Acquisitions Department, worked with booksellers in Spain to purchase in lot a great number of primary materials relating to Spanish theater.  Downs, ever eager to obtain large collections, would have been supportive of Crosby and Welch's collecting activities. He certainly would have seen them as a bargain, for acquisition files record them as costing between 20 and 50 cents.

Crosby's involvement in the play collection was limited to its purchase. A scholar of seventeenth-century Spanish poetry, he had little personal interest in the plays themselves and never saw them after they arrived at the Library. Crosby's commitment to augmenting the Library's holdings, connections with Spanish booksellers, and knowledge that his colleague and chair William H. Shoemaker was interested in nineteenth-century Spanish drama prompted him to suggest their acquisition. Keysort cards fortuitously left in several volumes of the collection, archival records and Crosby's testimony name Antonio Mateos Ortega of Gran Librería Anticuaria, a book dealer in the southern Spanish city of Málaga, as the plays‚ source. We suspect that Ortega may have gathered the materials from defunct theaters and theatrical archives. Several examples are stamped with the names of such institutions.

Less is known about how UIUC processed the plays. No extant documents account for their presence here. Librarian and staff recollections, however, suggest a plausible scenario. Mateos Ortega's catalogs, many of which survive in the UIUC Library's archives, would have been checked against UIUC's main card catalog by the staff of the Acquisition Department, and items selected or rejected. Like many large collections acquired at the time, the plays would have arrived first at Acquisitions for check in. In this case, they ranged from already bound to unbound, and from clean to rather soiled. Next they would have been sent to the Cataloging Department. While waiting there to be processed, the plays were most likely stored in boxes or in piles and kept in a corner of the room away from busy workspaces.  Coincidentally, the UIUC Library was also building its Slavic collections, and beginning to receive more Asian materials -- these trends plus our Spanish plays seem to have prompted a certain breakdown and restructuring of Technical Services to include a "Non-Western [sic] Languages Acquisition, Catalog, and Card Department" in the early 1960s!

The plays might have remained in Cataloging for a number of years. In the 1960s backlogs plagued the Department and impeded the processing of materials, especially those deemed of little value. The plays‚ age, ephemeral nature and tattered appearance would surely have belied their true worth and prompted their handlers to regard them as lacking merit. The plays seem to have been bound in the 669 volumes that currently hold them before being catalogued, as they carry a single call number which is inscribed solely on the first item in each volume. Once bound and catalogued, they would have gone to the Main Stacks. Some plays are stamped with the words "Remote Storage," indicating that in the mid-1980s they were shipped off to temporary remote storage along with other little used items during one of the Main Stack's many expansions.

Organization of the Collection

As noted above, to deal with the great number of items and their unwieldy nature, the Library had the plays bound together in 669 volumes. Generally speaking, they are organized by author and then by title; or by title alone if the author was not known. Multiple spellings for author names and the Spanish practice of double surnames upset the disposition of the items and at times gives the impression that no organizational principle was at work. Abrupt ruptures in the sequencing tell us that the collection is really three separately purchased and processed lots bundled together. Some plays are even bound in backwards, an oversight that signifies a rush job and the possible involvement of student workers. An invoice in one of the volumes names the Hertzberg-New Method company of Illinois as the binder. UIUC had the company use the least expensive technique and materials, known as "LUM" or "Lesser Used Materials" bindings, really little more than cardboard, wide tape or spine cloth, and glue that were quickly and sloppily assembled. From the limited information we have, it seems that their binding and haphazardness of organization indicates how little the plays were valued and that it was anticipated that they would be little used.  We are fortunate in that there are several individuals still working in the Main Library who remember the general policies and practices in Technical Services at the time.  

For these 669 LUM volumes, the term "collection" seems a bit of a misnomer, if we take the term to signify an intentional gathering of pieces, coherent at every level of their treatment. However, It would seem that Cataloging at some point in the processing treated them more as a "pile" than a collection, seen simply as having been acquired together -- and putting tremendous strain on an already unmanageable backlog. Lacking guidance in how to arrange and house them, the Library simply lumped them together. The pieces as bound form a collection at best only in their connection to Spanish drama. Even so some traces of the original administrative intention to form a collection are evident. However, in addition to the 669 volumes, we are finding numerous volumes of plays bound in Spain by individual owners and purchased both from Mateos Ortega and from other dealers, indicated by notations in the books by Acquisitions and Cataloging.  The presence of these other volumes, cataloged much more expeditiously than the former, indicate that the highest levels of the administration and faculty viewed them as a collection.


The Spanish Play Collection, like other Library materials at the time, would have received a main entry card to be filed in the Library's card catalogue, located just outside of the Main Stacks. A shelf-list card might have been created for the ML&L Library, which provides reference and instructional services for the faculty and students in the Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, likely considered the plays‚ primary users. A long-time staff member in the ML&L Library remembers a card file for the plays, which was part of the general shelf-list. At present the card file is missing and no one remembers what happened to it. Hopefully it will turn up in a search of the Library. In the seventies, with the advent of the Library's online catalogue, a single MARC record with the title of Collection of Spanish Plays was created for the collection. This record, unfortunately, does not enumerate the collection's individual pieces.

The Spanish Play Project

The Project, as stated at the outset of the essay, is in its infancy. In January 2006 the UIUC Library provided seed money from an in-house NEH grant to look into best practices for accessing and preserving the plays. With this money and a subsequent in-house grant, Linde Brocato, a Ph.D. in Spanish literature and currently an M.S. candidate at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at UIUC, was hired as an assistant. (She is really more a partner). At present we foresee three phases for the Project.

The initial phase has two general aims: to assess the nature and quantity of the items and to determine the access and preservation needs. We are currently in the middle of this phase of the project. Research and discussions with cataloguers have shown us the importance of having a catalog record for each item. To ascertain cataloguing needs, we are performing a random sampling of 669 items, that is, one per volume, as required by our research protocol. To date we have sampled 47 items within our census of 125 volumes and found that 15% need original cataloguing. The rich paratextual material found on most of the plays (advertisements, images, archive stamps, marginalia, etc.) warrants enhanced MARC records for another 6%, most likely in the form of notes in the note field. Once we determine the plays‚ cataloguing needs, we will apply for funding to hire cataloguers.

In the first phase we are also addressing preservation issues. Tom Teper, Librarian for Preservation at UIUC, is helping us determine best preservation practices. Some of the preservation issues that must be addressed before we start cataloguing are whether to disband the plays, treat the brittle pieces, and put each item into preservation holders. After cataloguing the plays, we hope to send them to climate-controlled remote storage.

A second phase will create an Access database for that will make bibliographic, metadata, and paratextual information searchable online. Enhanced MARC records will furnish only general access to this material. A database will provide specific access in the form of the actual wording and, in the case of images, a description. We are still working out how to tackle this immense task.

The third phase will digitize portions of the collection. To accompany these activities, we are also engaged in a myriad of outreach activities, such as delivering talks, publishing scholarly articles, contacting librarians at other institutions with similar collections, working with domain specialists, and planning a conference.

For more information or to make suggestions, please contact Paula Mae Carns at pcarns@uiuc.edu

Editor: Paul Vermouth

Association of College & Research Libraries
©American Library Association

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