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ArticlesFall 2011

University campaign sparks growth in Special Collections

Vanderbilt’s Special Collections opens a window to the past. The shelves are lined with the highlights, and the minutiae, of people’s lives and livelihoods. Through the $5 million in gifts received from more than 1,900 donors during the recently completed Shape the Future campaign, the library acquired a number of significant collections that enrich its academic depth.

Of special note are the papers of pioneering film and TV director Delbert Mann, BA’41, and the papers of respected Afro-Hispanic author Manuel Zapata Olivella. These and other collections have an impact on teaching, learning and research every day at Vanderbilt.

The papers of Zapata Olivella, who has been called the 20th century’s most important Afro-Hispanic narrator, refocused the dissertation of graduate student John Maddox. “After we read Changó, El Gran Putas (Olivella’s masterwork), in William Luis’ Caribbean literature class, I discovered the library’s collection and designed much of my project around it,” he says. The Heard Library Society funded the acquisition of the papers.

Graduate student John Maddox displays a scrapbook from the Zapata Olivella collection.

Maddox’s dissertation is a literary analysis that examines how contemporary writers use historical fiction to revise written accounts of Africans’ roles in the history of the Americas. His work investigates how these writers used the lack of Latin American slave narratives to transform the ideas behind oral myths into new epics and national histories that reflect the politics of the ’60s and ’70s.

“You can’t study contemporary Latin American literature … without reading Zapata Olivella, and you can’t
understand (him) without this collection.”

With his work, Maddox hopes to call more attention to Zapata Olivella and other important Latin American authors whom­ he feels deserve much more study from scholars of literature, culture and history. He believes the collection will become an unparalleled resource for researchers around the world.

“You can’t study contemporary Latin American literature, especially Afro-Hispanic literature, without reading Zapata Olivella, and you can’t understand Zapata Olivella’s complete oeuvre without this collection,” he says.

In Professor Richard Blackett’s history workshop, undergraduate students begin to understand primary source research with the opening project—a 25-page biography of a person they research through Special Collections.

“I insist that they use Special Collections to research a specific aspect of someone’s life,” says Blackett, the Andrew Jackson Professor of American History. “I want them to get their fingers soiled, to really feel the research. This is an opportunity to get really seasoned in what historians do. Primary source research like this is the foundation of everything we do in this business.”

His students have enjoyed using the Delbert Mann collection, which was a gift to Vanderbilt from Mann’s sons. “The collection is so expansive that students must carve out a specific idea to research,” he says. “Looking at his Oscar, or his years in the war—there are lots of World War II papers. Doing this helps students learn how to narrow a project so that it’s manageable.”

Blackett believes that the growing Special Collections is a jewel for students and research. “There are lots of little revelations in research; it’s the historian’s job to string the pieces together,” he says. “Special Collections is a wonderful resource, just full of uncovered treasures.”

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photo credit: Joe Howell

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