Libraries revel in small exhibits

Small exhibitions play a surprisingly important role in promoting Yale’s holdings.
Small exhibitions play a surprisingly important role in promoting Yale’s holdings. Photo by Danny Serna.

Students walking through the Medical Library are greeted by a World War II poster warning soldiers to beware of venereal disease. Law students looking for ancient tax code can find medieval manuscripts sitting in display cases. And researchers at Manuscripts and Archives may see a model of turn-of-the-century Old Campus if they walk across the hall.

The plethora of oft-overlooked small exhibits that dot Yale’s libraries play an important role in promoting holdings and educating visitors about their collections, even if they often do not draw large numbers of viewers, said librarians and curators who organize the displays.

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Christine Weideman, the director of Manuscripts and Archives, said she doesn’t keep track of how many people peruse the library displays, and though she does attempt to attract an audience, the exhibit’s goal of educating visitors can be accomplished without the crowds.

“All of our exhibits are primarily to educate about a topic or to educate about our holdings,” Weideman said. “It can be just one person, one student who comes in and goes, ‘Wow, I really want to do this next year for my senior essay,’ who otherwise wouldn’t have been reached.”

Currently on display in Sterling Memorial Library’s Memorabilia Room is “Stover at Yale,” an exhibit that puts into context American writer Owen Johnson’s 1901 classic novel about a young man wading through of early-20th century Yale.

“Jews of the Maghreb,” a collection of books, photographs and facsimiles that went up Monday at SML, highlights the cultural tension in Israel between Jews of North Africa and Jews of Europe, said Nanette Stahl, curator for the Judaica Collection. The exhibit accompanies a symposium of the same name that will begin next week at the Whitney Humanities Center and will unite Judaica scholars from across the globe to discuss materials such as those featured in the exhibit.

This coordination is no coincidence, Stahl said — exhibits in the libraries often coincide with other events on campus to provide participants with another alley to explore the issues on the table. Last month, for instance, the Lillian Goldman Law Library’s exhibit featuring medieval manuscripts in legal texts coincided with a convention of medieval scholars, said Mike Widener, the law library’s rare book librarian.

During the convention, Widener gave a group of 40 leading medievalists a tour of the exhibit, which he called a learning experience for both sides.

“It’s like a parlor game for medievalists,” Widener said. “One of the leading experts in medieval handwriting [said] ‘You know, I won’t remember any of the papers I hear at this conference, but this event I’ll remember.’ ”

Last fall, the library featured an exhibit called “Freedom of the Seas” celebrating the 400th anniversary of the publication of “Mare Liberum,” a book that in some ways, Widener said, marked the beginning of modern international law. Next spring, working in tandem with the Elizabethan Club, the library will present an exhibit on Elizabethan law, to be curated by Justin Zaremby ’03 GRD ’07 LAW ’10, in celebration of the Lizzie’s centennial.

But aside from libraries’ academic purposes, such exhibits have an aesthetic value that can provide an informative break from studies, said Susan Wheeler, curator for prints and drawings at the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library. The medical library now displays of 42 posters from across the globe encouraging proper health habits, drawn from the library’s 450 newly-collected historical medical posters.

“It goes to inform people, to create a rich environment and to just provide respite,” Wheeler said.

The posters will be on display through early May.

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