June 01, 2011 | Lynn Rosendale

Safekeeping for Our Rare, Valued Books

It might seem fitting to some that the oldest books and records of the college be stored in the oldest space on campus. It’s a bit incongruous based on the intrinsic value of the collections, however, according to Dick Harms, Calvin’s archivist.

“Much of what we have here is one-of-a-kind,” explained Harms. “If it disappears, it’s gone forever.”

The Hekman Library was built in 1962 and underwent an expansion and renovation in 1994, but Heritage Hall—which houses the records of Calvin College, Calvin Theological Seminary and the Christian Reformed Church of North America—was untouched.

That’s about to change with the start of Phase 1, which includes renovating the storage and work areas for the archives and rare book room.

“This part of the project isn’t terribly glitzy,” said Harms, “but it’s important.” The environment needs to be dry and cool—and stable, he explained. “Paper expands and contracts with changing temperatures, and we want to be able to preserve these things. Photographs are very vulnerable to humidity, which caused photos to curl.”

Environmental controls will be part of the renovation, which also includes tearing down walls and thereby creating additional space, replacing carpeting (of four different varieties), refurbishing plumbing lines and adding adequate shelving.

“Many of the rare books really need to be stored on their sides, not standing up,” said Harms. “Some of these books are large, and the bindings pull loose from the large books, but we don’t have the space.”

In fact, a year ago, the archives stopped taking in new collections or additions because of a lack of space. That has since been rectified with additional storage on the east side of the campus.

“In true Calvinistic fashion, we’re doing the unglamorous stuff first,” said Harms, “but I’m happy that the valuable items will be stored correctly for the first time.”

Phase 2 of the project will include more glamour. Since rare books and archival materials do not circulate, a reading room with a more visible entrance from the library is one aspect of the new plan.

“Right now, there are not good sightlines to our space,” said Harms. “We’re at a dead end down here.”

Located on the second floor of the Hekman Library, diverted off from the north staircase, Heritage Hall is hard to find. “I would say a lot of people don’t know where the archives is,” said Harms.

Added visibility and exhibition of resources are planned outcomes of the second phase, which will be completed as funds become available. If you would like to help support this component of the project, please contact the development office at (800) 968-4363 or (616) 526-6090.

What is buried in the archives?

How much did the college pay for the Knollcrest campus and from whom was it purchased? Who started the Christian Reformed Church and why? Who were the first graduates of Calvin Seminary and how much was their tuition? The answers to these questions and many more can be found in Heritage Hall, which houses the archives of Calvin College, Calvin Theological Seminary and the Christian Reformed Church of North America.

“We have the official non-current records of this institution,” said college archivist Dick Harms. “We also have the records of about 80 percent of the Christian Reformed Church congregations in North America, which equals about 800 to 900 churches."

From the denominational records and individual church records, scholars are able to thoroughly research the women in office movement, for example, Harms explained. “Scholars have also told us that we have the second best collection in the world of the secession from the Dutch Reformed Church in 1834 [which led to the start of the Christian Reformed Church].”

Beyond the institutional records though, Heritage Hall holds diverse collections from politicians Paul Henry and Vernon Ehlers; writers Meindert and David de Jong; leader of the Dutch immigration to the United States A.C. Van Raalte; and Christian philosophers Bernard Zylstra and Evan Runner.

“We were very happy to get the Runner papers,” said Harms. “Who better than Calvin to have that collection?”

The archives also houses collections of Civil War and Dutch immigrant letters, in addition to genealogies of Dutch-American families.

“We collect what we can about the Dutch in America,” said Harms. “There’s always a good collection on the horizon; the problem we have is space.”

Digitizing elements of the collection is helpful in that regard, but keeping originals remains a priority. Audiotapes and videotapes of performances and lectures that occurred on campus are in the process of being converted, as are reel-to-reel cassettes and other forms of media.

“Some of what we have might surprise people,” said Harms. “All of it is in our database and can be searched online.”

The rare book collection

Some people do judge a book by its cover. In fact, it’s part of Lugene Schemper’s job.

Schemper is the theological librarian at Calvin’s Hekman Library. As a side interest, he takes care of the rare book collection. Schemper analyzes many aspects of these rare books, including the content, binding and formats.

The rare book collection contains approximately 8,000 volumes of 5,400 titles. The oldest book dates back to 1492, a religious text written by a 14th-century religious figure in the Netherlands.

These unique books are a priceless resource to scholars. One unusual format in the collection is a palm leaf manuscript, an East Asian religious text written on palm leaves.

A hundred years’ worth of bound Gentleman’s Magazines can be found among the collection, including an issue from 1776 that features a copy of the Declaration of Independence. Schemper pointed out the historic document is “right across the page from a letter by a man from Siberia, offering service to the ladies in the important business of hairdressing.”

Other collection highlights include: early modern Dutch history, language, theology, works of Abraham Kuyper, 19th-century British and American periodicals, and 19th- and 20th-century Dutch language press imprints.

Many of the books in the collection were donated. Some are from ministers’ libraries, including those of Johannes Hoekstra, a graduate from Calvin Theological Seminary in 1857.

While many of the books have monetary value, it’s the intrinsic value that gains them a spot in the Calvin collection.

“We don’t keep them because they are expensive. It’s because they are useful for teaching, useful for preserving the intellectual heritage of Calvin College,” Schemper said.

Preserving these books requires a stable environment. Steady temperature, humidity levels and proper shelving ensure longevity. The library is undergoing reconstruction of these rooms to ensure these delicate books are protected.

“It’s going to be a really good thing,” Schemper said about the renovation of the rare book room. “It will be a place where we can maintain more control over how and where the books are used.”

The collection of books is currently split into three rooms. The first phase of the renovation project will turn these rooms into one big space.

“We don’t really have a proper reading room, and still with this upcoming renovation we aren’t going to have an adequate reading room,” Schemper said.

The project’s next phase would update the reading room, needed because the unique books can’t be checked out. He hopes the renovation makes the rare books more accessible.

“We have outside people using these books, too. Last year the city museum of New York used a couple of our books in a book display they did on Henry Hudson,” said Schemper.

He hopes to have more rare book displays in the future: “It will raise the awareness of people who teach here, so they’ll know what we’ll have and how they might use them in classes.”

The people behind the papers

Shelves overhead store thousands and thousands of papers around Ed Gerritsen’s desk. Gerritsen’s interest in history led him to where he is now, volunteering two days a week processing material for the archives of Heritage Hall.

“I was a design engineer, but I’ve always been interested in history. Especially the history of the church and the history of the Dutch immigrants coming to this country,” said Gerritsen, an archives volunteer for the last 14 years.

After moving to Grand Rapids from New Jersey 14 years ago, Gerritsen called Calvin to gauge the college’s interest in the Dutch theological books he acquired from his father and his grandfather. After Gerritsen donated the books to Calvin, he asked if the school needed volunteers.

“They said yes, and that was really the beginning,” Gerritsen said.

Gerritsen processes all the archival material that comes to Heritage Hall, including material from retired professors like Howard Van Till and Herbert Brinks, former college president William Spoelhof, noted theologian Gerard Van Groningen, former state Sen. William Van Regenmorter, and minutes from various denominational agencies like World Missions and Christian Reformed World Relief Committee.

“Just about everything that comes in I process,” said Gerritsen.

Students from Calvin, including seminary students, access the Heritage Hall archives for various reasons. Many times their assignments lead them to the archives to research material for papers.

Other volunteers join Gerritsen in the archives, including Gerrit W. Sheeres and Ralph Haan. While Haan uses his expertise to research family genealogies, Sheeres volunteers one day a week translating documents from Dutch to English.

Sheeres translates old minutes of the Christian Reformed churches. These minutes date back to 1850 and were written in Dutch until around 1920. The church council minutes have been given to Calvin’s archives for history’s sake.

The archives also house 4,970 immigration letters. Sheeres translates these letters composed of postings from America to the Netherlands and vice versa.

Sheeres said his job is interesting because “you look through the eyes of people who lived 150 years ago. You feel their pains and you become acquainted with their joys.”

Other volunteers include Janet Sheeres (Sheeres’ wife), Paul Bremer, Willene De Groot, Fred Greidanus, Helen Meulink and Ralph Veenstra.

“Our volunteers are invaluable to our operation,” said Richard Harms, curator of the archives. “Most weeks our volunteers work a total number of hours equivalent to two full-time positions,” he said. “We admire their dedication and zeal and are most appreciative of all they do.”

The upcoming renovation of Heritage Hall will affect its volunteers as well.

“Dr. Harms has done a marvelous job of putting [the archives] all together, but we are running out of space. I’m looking forward to it,” Sheeres said.

Gerritsen said the expansion is coming none too soon, with an overflow of documents being stored in a separate building across the East Beltline from the college.

“We’re really past bursting at the seams,” Gerritsen said. “This expansion is something that everyone here has been looking forward to for a long time because there’s no place to go anymore.”

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