Exploring the Bancroft Library

Berkeley Connect History students take a tour of the vast collection of the Bancroft Library


Berkeley Connect History students examine the rare documents.

The Bancroft Library is a rare resource that most students have never explored–but recently, Berkeley Connect History students got the opportunity to do just that. The Bancroft Library is home to one of the largest collections of rare historical books and documents in the United States, and one of the only ones that grants access to undergraduates. As Instruction Coordinator Lee Anne Titangos noted, most such collections require users to be enrolled in a doctoral program or to have a doctorate.

The tour for Berkeley Connect students began with an introduction to the history of the Bancroft. Named for Hubert Howe Bancroft, whose large collection of almost 50,000 documents, books, and maps laid the foundations of the library, the library now holds over 600,000 books and 55,000 linear feet of manuscripts and is home to many special collections, including an ongoing oral history project.

Students were then shown a few examples of the wide range of documents, books, and material the library owns. They first examined a Sumerian cuneiform tablet from 1850 BC that described the building of a governor’s palace. One of the earliest forms of writing, cuneiform involved carving symbols on wet clay and air-drying or baking the finished tablet. Students next were given the chance to turn the pages of a copy of the Brut Chronicle, a medieval manuscript dating from the 1400s. This history of England, like all medieval books, was painstakingly hand-written. Included in its narrative are many familiar characters, including the legendary King Arthur and King Lear. In fact, the book is often called Shakespeare’s source book because Shakespeare drew the plots for many of his plays from its pages.

Another book the students got the opportunity to touch was the Nuremberg Chronicle, which was published in 1493 at the advent of the printing press. Commissioned by two German merchants, it tells the history of Europe through a biblical lens, beginning its narrative with Adam and Eve. Interestingly enough, the book left six blank pages towards the end for the owner of the book to write his or her own personal history before diving into the Apocalypse and the end of the world, as foretold in the Bible.

Next was a 1595 document from the Mexican Inquisition that tells the tragic tale of a pre-eminent family revealed to be practicing Judaism. As the curators note, the document is only one of the Bancroft’s massive collection of Inquisition documents, which is the largest one outside of Spain and Mexico. Also present was a French Revolution pamphlet that compared the royal family to various animals. A testament to the growing power of the press, it is a rare artifact –as Titangos told the students, pamphlets like this one rarely survived because they were routinely destroyed or their authors imprisoned.

Moving both in space and time, students were introduced to a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to his good friend and personal physician Benjamin Rush that mentioned a Captain Lewis, who Jefferson wanted to send on an expedition to newly-purchased territory–a reference to what became the famous Lewis and Clark expedition. Students viewed a petition to Canada by British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson , after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in the United States, urging Canada not to turn away runaway slaves. Students saw many more letters, including one written by a German immigrant during the Gold Rush to family back home, and a letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson to John Muir.

The Bancroft Library is not just home to books and documents. Among the materials students glimpsed was a hand-drawn map used in one of the hundreds of land cases in the 1800s, after California passed an act that required individuals with Spanish or Mexican land grants to prove their right to their land. They also viewed a watercolor of a Japanese internment camp by UC Berkeley graduate Yoshiko Ushida. Sent to the camp during her senior year, she continued her studies there and received her degree, later publishing an a book about the experience.

Some of the curators’ favorite items were postcards for women’s suffrage printed in 1908. These, Titangos said, were examples of ephemeral documents, which were not meant to be saved. Also displayed to students were several old photographs, part of a collection of millions of historical photographs in the library.

It’s not every day that students get to observe firsthand, and even touch, materials that have survived for hundreds or even thousands of years. For these Berkeley Connect students, history became a tangible presence in the room. We all walked away wondering what “ephemera” from our own time may have historical significance in the future.


posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant