|A Very Special Collection|
|Written by Anne Tschida, BT Arts Editor|
UM’s library holds a unique assemblage of Florida memories
On the eighth floor of the Richter Library at the University of Miami, a display case to the right of the entrance contains science-fiction books and magazines from the 1940s and 1950s, with titles about UFOs, Nazi secret weapons, and true strange paranormal tales. They’re from the estate of Jackie Gleason, a huge sci-fi buff.
This quirky display exemplifies the unique and fascinating treasure trove housed in UM’s Libraries Special Collections, which has been on an expansive quest to document varied histories. It is focused on Florida, but not exclusively, which is why it is becoming an important collection nationally.
Take Gleason, for instance: He has a major theater named after him in Miami Beach, but he’s a national legend and his obsession with UFOs can be considered a mid-20th-century Americana phenomenon.
Earlier in the day of this visit, the library hosted an event for a book project involving author Waleed Hazbun and utilizing the Special Collection’s catalogue about Pan American airlines. This is another great example of what is developing at the library.
Pan Am, founded in 1927 as one of the first international air carriers, helped put Miami on the international map (the airline folded in 1991). Known initially for its flights to the Caribbean and South America, Pan Am would become one of the best-known airlines to fly to Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
It’s about the latter region that author Hazbun is plumbing the thousands of records, photographs, graphics, and other items. His project explores the challenges of modern air travel, including hijackings and bombings. This Pan Am collection has a base in Florida, but its reach is global.
Other collections derive from the Orange Bowl, Marjory Stoneman Douglas and her Everglades conservation efforts, Caribbean folk art, self-produced political pamphlets from centuries back, and more contemporary counterculture zines. The most prominent and popular archive, housed on the library’s second floor, is the Cuban Heritage Collection.
While these are essential resources for scholars and students, the head of Special Collections, Cristina Favretto, is on a mission to spread the word that this is a resource for all of the public.
“This is open, free,” she says while gently turning the pages of a fragile, 300-year-old book. “These hidden treasures are not exclusive -- they should be seen by a wide public.”
Favretto points to a book in the middle of a display case, one she would like everyone to see. It’s an illustrated tome, Brevis Narratio Eorum Quae in Florida Americae, published about 1591, written in Latin, and is likely the first travelogue of Florida.
The remarkable images, by Jacques Le Moyne, depict Native Americans cooking, planting seeds, engaged in everyday life. Le Moyne was appointed official artist for the French expedition, which sailed for Florida in 1564, and may have been the first western artist to visit the New World.
But close by is a less benign publication involving Florida’s native inhabitants. It’s an 1835 pamphlet titled “The Massacre of the Whites,” depicting Indians and African Americans slaughtering settlers, scalping them, threatening the women, and so on. It’s an ultimate propaganda piece from that period, says Favretto.
She almost caresses a non-political book, which she calls one of the collection’s “uber” books. The Roses is an illustrated botanical guide about those prickly stemmed flowers, from the royal painter in the court of Louis XVI, Pierre-Joseph Redouté. After the king and his wife, Marie Antoinette, lost their heads, Redouté continued to paint and document flowers and plants in the post-Revolutionary Napoleonic years, becoming one of the most famous botanical illustrators of all time.
“This is priceless, really,” says Favretto of The Roses. But, she explains with a smile, there is a Florida connection here too. “It came to us from a former alumnus, John du Pont.”
Heir to one of America’s richest families, du Pont was, to put it mildly, a strange bird, who actually studied birds and graduated from the University of Miami in 1965 with a degree in zoology. His interest in wrestling brought about his downfall; he murdered an Olympic wrestler in 1996 (the saga was told in the 2014 film Foxcatcher). After his death of natural causes in prison in 2010, some of his private library, such as The Roses, landed in the Special Collections.
As Favretto walks around the library, pointing out centuries-old books about crocodiles and religion, she explains that many publications from those earlier eras were made, literally, from rags -- from cloth, and are thus longer lasting than other materials.
But Favretto has another passion for a more contemporary form of publication, those that are called zines. First produced in the early 20th Century, they proliferated in the 1960s, often about underground music, alternative lifestyles, and yes, sci-fi, they are do-it-yourself pamphlets and mini magazines, which became extremely popular during the punk music movement in the United States and England starting in the late 1970s.
Favretto, a native of Trieste, previously worked in the libraries and collections of San Diego State, Duke, and Harvard universities. Now at UM, she travels the world to attend rare book fairs -- and zine events.
Indeed, the zine scene is alive and thriving; Special Collections has shared its extensive repertoire -- with more than 6000 zines, Favretto says it’s likely in the top ten anywhere -- at various public exhibits, most recently in April at HistoryMiami.
For that show, according to Special Collections librarian Jay Sylvestre, they created “a zine about zines, Zineology #1.” The rudimentary black-and-white publication explains the history of the genre, with an emphasis on music, LGBTQ and gender identity politics, and the current fad of “perzines,” or personal zines.
Oh, and “Florizines.” As written in Zineology #1, “we collect zines that document countercultural and fringe lifestyles in Florida.”
It would be hard to document the eclectic history of South Florida without including materials about Miami’s Bunny Yeager, which on this particular afternoon the staff was archiving. Yeager was a model, bikini designer, and eventually an internationally acclaimed pin-up photographer who became an iconic figure in South Florida. She died here in 2014.
In 2017, the Special Collections will move to a huge space on the first floor of the Richter Library, making it more accessible to the public, which is an important undertaking for them. Pieces of the collection will continue to be exhibited at other venues, but in the meantime, strange and wonderful stories about our past, and the world’s, are still at your fingertips, page by painstakingly catalogued page.
For more information, visit library.miami.edu/specialcollections.
Volume 15, Issue 2, April 2017
Sales, special events, and more from the people who make Biscayne Times possible