Taking a look at some of the college’s unique (and sometimes perplexing) objects in our Special Collections

By Robyn Rime

The Special Collections in Fraser Hall Library range from college memorabilia to local historical documents to rare, fragile, and valuable artifacts. It’s easy to see why some of the items ended up at the College. Faculty publications, decades of old yearbooks and campus newspapers, and posters from SUNY Geneseo events in years past all populate the College Archives. Papers and photos from the Genesee Valley and its first settlers, the Wadsworth family, span more than 150 years of the region’s history. But other items are puzzling, their provenance less directly tied to the College. Why, for instance, does the library own a collection of turn-of-the-century luggage tags? In this ongoing feature, Scene will highlight some of the unusual, intriguing, and often unique objects in Geneseo’s Special Collections.

 16th-century books, donated by professor Leslie Poste

Some of the oldest items in the library’s Special Collections, these collected writings by early Christian thinkers date back almost 500 years, to the 1530s.

Tiny brown “bookworm” holes dot their covers and some of their interior pages. Front-edge clasps, now broken, once closed the books tightly to keep the paper flat and prevent sheets from warping. Inside, a number of the pages contain annotations such as underlines or marginal comments—a key part of reading for people in the pre-modern world, says Yvonne Seale, associate professor of history. “They thought that ‘active’ reading was the best way to make sense of a text, so these would have been made by all kinds of readers: university students, or nuns engaged in devotional reading, or gentlemen of leisure who could afford large libraries and the time to spend in them.” Marginal comments were the medieval reader’s version of footnotes, says Seale, and their version of highlighting a particularly important passage was to use pointing manicules, or “little hands.”

Title page of a book printed in 1539, written by John Damascus

A 16th-century book (1539) of the writings of John of Damascus, also donated by Leslie Poste. /Photo by Matt Burkhartt

The books were donated by Leslie Poste, a Geneseo professor of library and information science—and he is a story in himself.

Poste, a librarian who served with military intelligence during World War II, was selected for an unusual assignment after the war: service with the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program as a libraries specialist officer. Why did the army need a librarian? Stationed in Stuttgart, Germany, Poste helped to discover, preserve, and return to their original countries the books, manuscripts, and archives stolen by the Nazis. From July 1945 until June 1949, the Offenbach Archival Depot, which Poste helped establish, served as the central storage location for approximately 2.5 million looted books and manuscripts from more than 60 libraries across Europe and Russia.

Poste returned stateside in late 1947, then earned his doctorate with a dissertation based on his service as a Monuments Man. From 1958 to 1978, he was a professor of library and information science at SUNY Geneseo, and he spent his retirement as an antiquarian bookseller in the New York area—an expertise from which Geneseo’s Special Collections certainly benefitted.

Leslie Poste died in Geneseo, NY, on July 23, 1996, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The new Milne Library will feature a renovated Special Collections space to showcase such unique pieces of history.

Learn about a collection of letters home from a Civil War soldier that were recently donated to the Special Collections.