Only a couple of copies of the book Atlas to Cook’s Third Voyage, 1776-1780 (London, 1784) exist. Butler’s Irwin Library owns one of them, and on a recent Thursday morning, sophomore Rachel Counts was looking at a map in the atlas, which details Capt. James Cook’s three voyages to the South Seas.
She was putting together a proposal for a research project as part of the course “Close Encounters,” a first-year seminar History Professor Paul Hanson teaches for History and Anthropology majors. Her topic was linguistics, and she was looking at the different spellings on Cook’s map—Owyhee for what we now know as Hawaii, Niphon for Japan, Corea for Korea—as she and her classmates familiarized themselves with the kinds of primary-source materials that are available in the library’s collection.
“Some of the books I was going to look at I found online,” said Counts, who came to Butler from Powell, Ohio, outside Columbus. “But it’s very different when you have a piece of history in your hands. You’re living through that, rather than looking at a screen. It makes it more real—and, for me, more exciting.”
The Cook Atlas is part of the William F. Charters South Seas Collection, which contains nearly 3,400 books and is one of the most extensive compilations the library owns. Sally Childs-Helton, Head of Special Collections, Rare Books, and University Archives, said that for a school its size, Butler has a large collection of materials that cannot be found elsewhere.
She said everything that comes into the library’s archives must either reflect the history of the university or must be used for current teaching needs. The Charters collection, which was donated to the University in 1930, fits into that second classification.
Childs-Helton said students need to have access to materials like this that “haven’t been spun, Photoshopped, or put into other contexts.”
“Primary sources are the closest things we have to time travel,” she said. “They have that power of immediacy to take you back to when a particular item was created. It’s a very powerful experience to be sitting there, for example, with a copy of a letter that you know was written on a Civil War battlefield vs. that same letter being digitized and you’re seeing it online or transcribed and printed in a book.”
Childs-Helton said it’s vitally important for students, especially at this point in their careers, to learn how to handle primary-source materials if they’re going to do research. Her goal—and she works with classes in all six of Butler’s colleges to accomplish it—is to teach them how to handle the materials carefully to preserve them for future scholars. (Special Collections follows best practices of conservation and preservation, protecting materials from light, temperature fluctuation, bugs, and theft/mishandling. “These materials are protected as well as they can be,” Childs-Helton said.)
She also wants students to appreciate the potential these sources have to make their research the best it can be.
Hanson, who has written several books about French history, often uses primary sources for his research. He said that the nature of archival research has been a current topic for discussion among professional historians because it has been announced that the Barack Obama Presidential Library will be virtual—no stacks of documents and letters, but an entirely digital collection.
“You would have to look a long time to find a historian who would tell you they’d rather see a digital copy of something rather than hold a book in their hands,” Hanson said.
That feeling was evident among his students too. Maggie Jones, a junior from Elwood, Indiana, had requested four books from the Charters collection, including one Charles Darwin wrote about his experiences on the second voyage of the HMS Beagle. She was looking through a book by George French Angas called Polynesia: a popular description of the physical features, inhabitants, natural history and productions of the islands of the Pacific for research on the environment of 19th century South America.
As a history and anthropology major, she’s interested in how the natural environment of a place contributes to the lives of the people.
“While it’s convenient to have information online, there’s just something about actually having the book and knowing that this is actually part of history,” she said. “That’s really cool to me, knowing that they’re a part of history.”