Exploring the Treasures of the Bancroft Library

October 31, 2019

Exploring the Treasures of the Bancroft LibraryRecently, the Bancroft Library here on the Cal campus held an open day for multiple Berkeley Connect programs to view some of the amazing items in the library’s collection that can’t be checked out by anyone. Students had the opportunity to examine volumes by some of the most influential authors in history.

The Bancroft is one of the largest libraries of manuscripts, rare books, and unique materials in the United States. This special collection holds over 600,000 volumes, 60 million manuscript items, and 8 million photographs/pictorial materials. As the items held in the library are sensitive and valuable, security is tight. No bags are allowed in, so lockers are available for visitors to store their personal items. Normally, appointments are necessary to visit this library, so make sure to plan ahead if you want to visit this hub of research. Unlike many prestigious research collections, the Bancroft is open for use by undergraduates.

When the Berkeley Connect students visited, the research room was taken over and three large tables were covered with books and photographs from various periods of history. Students were given question sheets to structure their exploration of the dozens of items on display. Questions included “What item was invented here on the UC Berkeley Campus?” and “What is the oldest item on display?” Students paired off in groups of two and got to work.

The collection on display was something straight out of any history, philosophy, or literature buff’s dream. It was mind-blowing to see the dates on some of these items. An original cuneiform tablet from 1850 BCE was on display next to a manuscript handwritten on vellum paper by theologian Petrus Lombardus circa 1100 CE. On another table sat a first edition of the revolutionary philosopher Immanuel Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason, in its original German, published in 1781. Nearby was a first edition of Mary Shelley’s iconic novel Frankenstein, published in 1818, and next to it a copy of Jane Austen’s 1811 three-volume novel Sense and Sensibility. Other notable volumes on display included René Descartes’ Discourse on Method from 1637, an 1854 first edition of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, a 1690 copy of John Locke’s “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” and a 1567 Latin translation of Plato’s collected works. Each volume is preserved in excellent condition, extremely legible and beautifully designed. Staff at the Bancroft Library were available to answer questions from students about the items on display.

In addition to the incredible collection of ancient and historical volumes on display, the Berkeley Connect exhibit included artifacts salient to the history of UC Berkeley. These included a copy of the patent for the “method and apparatus of the acceleration of ions” by Ernst Lawrence, the technology that would change the world forever through the application of the cyclotron to create nuclear energy; the Berkeley Free Speech Movement declaration of independence; and other important documents of social protest and campus history.

Berkeley Connect students seemed to have a great time working together to answer the questions and view the collections. Camaraderie was in the air along with amazement at the items on display.

There is a tangible feeling of historical significance inside the Bancroft library and visiting the collections is something that every student should do before they graduate. No matter your area of interest, there is a wealth of items for everyone. Without a doubt, this is one of the most awe-inspiring locations on the Berkeley campus and it should not be missed.

posted by Dylan McIlvenna-Davis, Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant (Class of ’20)