From the Vault: Collecting for future generations

Writer: 
August 1, 2010

Treasure trove: Trinity College Historical Society holdings, first stored in a fireproof vault, evolved into today's Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. Duke University Archives

In 1892, a young Trinity College history professor named Stephen B. Weeks came up with a plan to enhance the school's meager collection of historical materials. He established the Trinity College Historical Society and asked students and faculty members to join. The society's objective was to "collect, arrange, and preserve a library of books, pamphlets, maps, charts, manuscripts, papers, paintings, statuary, and other materials illustrative of the history of North Carolina and of the South, to rescue from forgetfulness the names and deeds of our first settlers, to encourage original work in the field of Southern History and to promote the study of the same by means of lectures and publications."

By 1894, the society had founded a museum and begun to collect relics of historical interest. When the Trinity Library opened in 1904, the new facility included a display room and a fireproof vault to store the society's treasures. These treasures included materials such as bullets from the Battle of the Crater near Petersburg, Virginia; a 1769 edition of Plutarch's Lives once owned by North Carolina Federalist and U.S. Supreme Court Justice James Iredell; and the papers of North Carolina author Edwin Wiley Fuller.

By 1906, the collecting focus of the society and museum shifted from relics to documents and printed materials of historical and research value. Thanks in large part to students, who solicited family and friends for documents and relics, the society owned more than 500,000 pieces of manuscript material by 1938.

These collections are the foundation of Duke's present Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library and University Archives.

An exhibition of the relics and documents collected by the Trinity College Historical Society will be on display in the Perkins Library Gallery, August 3 through October 10.