I have attended college here for two and a half years, and I had never heard of the Thomason Room until my editor assigned me this brief story. I can honestly say I was missing out.
The Thomason Room, located on the fourth floor of the Newton Gresham Library, has got to be one of the most interesting parts of this university. On the outside, it looks more like an art gallery than a room of archives, but once you take those first steps through the door, you realize that you truly are surrounded by historical beauty.
The 6,000 square foot room houses “Special Collections,” which include not only 19,000 printed titles, but also manuscript collections that do not pertain to the history of the university.
“This room started as the Texas Room in the Estill Library,” Special Collections associate librarian Cheryl Spencer said. “Dr. J. L. Clark, a professor of over 40 years, collected books both about Texas and books written by Texas authors. Eventually, there were so many of them, they started that room to hold them.”
When the Newton Gresham Library was completed in 1968, the Thomason Room was designated as a new place for the collection. Additionally, money from the legislature was used to buy several other collections, including works of early science fiction by H. G. Wells, numerous works by Gertrude Stein and over 500 items from the Mark Twain collection, including books about his writings and several printings and editions of his own works.
“We have county and city information, and we’ve also purchased a collection of Civil War materials about different battles and units, as well as huge sets of official printed records,” Spencer said, gesturing toward a bookshelf about 20 feet long and eight feet tall. “On the other side of that shelf, we have special editions that pertain to people who were at the College of Criminal Justice or eminent people in that field.”
Other items of interest that fit into that category include works about early criminology and prison reform during the 1700’s. Some of the books literally outline the conditions of European prisons during that time period, and contain “suggestions on how to make criminology a more humane field.”
Collections include personal libraries of the first two directors of the Bureau of Prisons, including the Eliasberg collection, which is the largest individual collection ever acquired by the library. The subjects covered in the collection range across criminology, penology, criminal law, forensic medicine and political science. A donation by Mrs. Jane Burns of her husband’s professional collections of thousands of slides, films and tapes has resulted in the Hank Burns Criminal Justice Media Collection.
The Thomason Room actually got its name from Col. John W. Thomason, Jr., a distinguished Marine, author and artist born in Huntsville in 1893. He was one of the best-known Texas authors of his time period, and is recognizable as a talented artist by the sketches, which appear in his own books as well as those of other authors.
His widow, Leda Bass Thomason, presented nearly 1,900 of is drawings to the university, as well as his manuscripts.
“Everywhere he went, he had a sketchbook with him, and its really interesting to see what came out of that,” Spencer said. “One sketch shows Charles Lindbergh making a speech, which means he must have been sitting there listening when Lindbergh was back from one of his famous flights.”
The room also includes two cases of books that were all printed before 1799. There are books that are actually covered in animal skin, and you can see the hair follicles on the covers and the places inside the books where bookworms actually ate through several pages, leaving tiny tunnels in their wake.
“It’s interesting to observe the quality of the paper,” Spencer said. “Humans are so here today, gone tomorrow, and here’s these books that have been around for 300 to 400 years.”
The oldest item in the room, in the whole library in fact, is a single page from The Golden Legend, written in the 1200’s and printed in 1493. At first glance, the page looks like something right out of a Bible, which catered to the literate population of that time period.
“The page is printed in two vertical columns because in the early market of literature, most people that could read were religious,” Spencer said. “They printed these pages in a style that would look like it was actually transcribed or copied by monks.”
Spencer went on to explain that since this page was printed around the time of the earliest printed works, collectors would take books apart and sell them page by page, and that was how this particular piece was passed down as a single entity.
The Thomason room is one part of the university that would take months to fully appreciate. The works of art alone won over most of my attention while I was there, and those were just a prelude to the volumes of rare literary history in the room.
“We want people to know that there really are rare treasures in here for those that would enjoy and respect them,” Spencer said.
The Thomason room is open from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. during the week, and any questions can be related either to Spencer or to Paul M. Culp, the Librarian in Special Collections. All materials are for library use only, but are available to anyone in the supervised environment, with instruction for handling the “fragile and elderly” materials when necessary.
This room is one place any student with a respect for historical knowledge would enjoy visiting. Whether you enjoy criminal justice, Civil War history, art or science fiction, the Thomason room has something to offer anyone of any field, and the trek up the three flights of stairs to get to the room is completely worth it.