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Sharing the Wealth – Pequot Library’s Special Collections

Upon Pequot Library’s opening in March 1894, Virginia Marquand Monroe, one of its original benefactors, declared it “free as air to all.” In the years since, the library, located in the center of Southport, has become one of the foremost cultural institutions in Fairfield County, proudly offering programs, events, exhibitions, and—of course!—books to the community.

From the day it opened, Pequot Library has considered the acquisition of rare and one-of-a-kind titles to be a priority. Now, Special Collections has its own dedicated meeting space: the Dillon Reading Room, located in the library’s mezzanine. Generous support from The Dillon Fund and the Constance C. Baker Rare Book Fund also allowed the library to build a climate-controlled storage area and to update the first-floor May Room, adding display cases for a rotating series of Special Collections titles. While about 2000 of the Special Collections’ more than 30,000 items are stored off site at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University (as well as in climate-controlled storage in Windsor), hundreds of books, letters, manuscripts, and archival materials are available at the library itself.

Under the guidance of the library’s founders, initial acquisitions consisted mainly of material related to Early Americana. In the early 1900s, a local Southport minister, Rev. William Holman, stepped in to manage and expand the library’s collection. In a 1977 New York Times article, former Pequot Library director Stanley Crane explained, “For 15 years, Holman did all the buying: pursuing rarities, running down special treasures like early New England primers and manuscripts on the signers of the Declaration of Independence.” However, as the collection grew, the subject matter also expanded. Titles currently on display at the library include one of the four Shakespeare folios, first printings of important novels such as The Fountainhead and All the King’s Men, an incredible collection of documents related to Native American life in North America.     

According to Pequot Library executive director Stephanie Coakley, most of these fine items had been in circulation throughout the library’s history, some as recently as 20 years ago. However, although interested visitors could always ask to see particular titles, there was no centralized place in which they could be studied and collected—until now. Visitors, researchers, and school groups finally have a dedicated space to explore Pequot’s Special Collections with the help of library staff. This open access allows visitors to interact with primary sources in ways that simply cannot be replicated in electronic media. 

“Making the Special Collections accessible is my primary concern,” Coakley says. “It shouldn’t be locked and caged away. It’s here for anyone who would like to see it.” To this end, Coakley explains that The Dillon Reading Room, lower-level storage, and the renovated May Room allow greater access than ever before. “Having these new spaces is everything. We can make the books available in a classroom-like environment. We can store them in a climate-controlled room, and we retrofitted some bookcases to be able to display some first editions and illuminated manuscripts. Making these inanimate objects come to life and being able to tell these stories is really important.”

Since the beginning of the year, Special Collections has been overseen by Dr. Jamie Cumby. Dr. Cumby came to the Pequot Library in early 2019 from the University of St. Andrew’s in Scotland, where she earned her M.Litt. with Distinction in Book History and her Ph.D. in Modern History. She was attracted to this small library because of the many opportunities for outreach and the ways in which the library is committed to making its Special Collections available to the community. She notes that, for many special collections librarians, there is a tension between preservation and access: how can these precious documents be made available, while also being kept safe? Nonetheless, she believes that the Pequot Library is striking the right balance. “I’m really excited about what I’ll be able to do over the next few years,” Cumby says, acknowledging that her most pressing task is to give the library “a comprehensively-organized resource.”

Mrs. Monroe’s founding principle—“Free as air to all”—continues to guide the staff at Pequot Library. Executive Director Stephanie Coakley believes that greater access to Pequot Library’s Special Collections will enable members of the community “to encounter something unique and interesting that will make you think”—and right in our own backyard.

Any patrons or scholars interested in visiting Special Collections can schedule an appointment  by contacting the Pequot Library, 720 Pequot Ave., Southport by phone at 203-259-0346 or at the library’s website, pequotlibrary.org. Pequot Library’s Special Collections catalog can be searched online at specialcollections.pequotlibrary.org.

Photo at top: Joan Frost, Pequot Library board member and The Dillon Fund president (far left) joins executive director Stephanie Coakley (center), Christine Catallo, and Dr. Jamie Cumby (far right) in the Dillon Reading Room.




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