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Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2010

Max Yela Heads UWM’s Special Collections

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In 1994, Max Yela transferred to UW-Milwaukee from the Special Collections Department of the University of Delaware Library, becoming UWM’s first Special Collections librarian. Since then, he has established programs, events and services that encourage public interaction with Special Collections. Classes can use the facility “like a laboratory,” Yela explains, and the general public can utilize it for research free of charge. Housed in the climate-controlled fourth floor, Yela demonstrates one of his personal favorites, a small box-shaped art book called In Here, Out There. The box opens to a small diorama and two tiny books with parallel text can be pulled from the box. Nearby is a 1597 book on herbs and vegetables. These are just two of the thousands of items in Special Collections.

What exactly are the Special Collections?

We try to identify, collect and preserve primary source printed materials that are important for humanities and social science programs. I’m not just collecting the information inside of these pieces; I’m collecting the object itself as a source of information. It is a way of getting at something, of documenting a thing, a person, an event or a movement. As an example, if you have a first printing of a first edition and a second printing of a first edition of Moby-Dick—why would somebody use those? Moby-Dick can be accessed online; it can be accessed in paperback in a bookstore or in a regular library. So why would someone use the original piece from 1851, let alone the second printing in 1855? It would be used to document the publishing of this particular book, which is one of the most important American printings ever. When I use those I use it as documentation between Henry Harper and one of his friends, [Herman] Melville. The physical evidence of those two relationships is in these editions. So it stands for more than just the text itself. We collect the artifact. You can’t find something about these things; this is the thing itself—that’s what makes it primary.

What are some ways the general public can use the Special Collections?

Special Collections has a number of different areas, so there are a number of constituencies that would be interested in those collections. We support everything from art history to sociology to film studies.

We have materials to investigate everything from Civil War research to women’s, LGBT and Jewish studies. The largest collection is our social justice collection. Our collection with probably the highest profile is our book arts collection. It’s not just noted regionally, but nationally—and gaining an international reputation as well. In addition to groups and classes, we hold “Great Books Roundtable Discussions” every month, on a classic piece of literature, open to the public.

Do you have a personal favorite in the Special Collections?

There are a number of them. My own research area is in the book as media object, and I’m particularly interested in how artists use the book as a media object. So artist books are important to me; that’s what I research and teach.

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