RLI 283 11 RESEARCH LIBRARY ISSUES: A REPORT FROM ARL, CNI, AND SPARC 2013 “There’s a Great Future in Plastics”:1 Mainstreaming a Special Collection Sean Quimby, Senior Director of Special Collections, Syracuse University Library “S ean. Plastic. What do you think?” Those were the dean’s exact words. I replied with hesitation, “I like plastic.” I did, in fact, like plastic, or rather, the idea of plastic. A few years earlier, I found myself captivated, somewhat unexpectedly, by Jeffrey Meikle’s book American Plastic: A Cultural History (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995), which makes the case for plastic—malleable and imitative—as a defining metaphor for the post-modern age. Then, in the fall of 2008, an alumnus of Syracuse University (SU) and retired plastics entrepreneur alerted the SU Library to the fact that the National Plastics Center and Museum (NPC), situated in the industry’s ancestral home of Leominster, Massachusetts, had decided to close and was looking to transfer its collection of books, archives, and artifacts elsewhere. With my enthusiastic support, the dean and the assistant dean for advancement visited the museum and brought back information on its collections to consider whether accepting this gift would add value to our existing special collections. The museum’s artifacts included a variety of early plastics made of celluloid thermoset plastics such as Bakelite as well as those made popular after World War II, such as acrylics, polystyrene, polyethylene, polypropylene, and nylon. The archival materials documented important companies, including sunglasses manufacturer Foster Grant, as well as papers of inventors and entrepreneurs who helped make the 20th century the “Age of Plastic.” The print collection included some 3,000 volumes, from early trade publications like Modern Plastics to esoteric books on polymer chemistry. The following case study describes SU Library’s strategies and processes for mainstreaming this gift. Alignment to Mission Why, in an era of shrinking spaces and expanding backlogs, did the Syracuse University Library agree to accept this unconventional gift? First, the SU Library had a precedent for collecting artifacts. Second, the Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) is home to more than 100 archival collections documenting the history of modern architecture and industrial design. Plastic, as a moldable material, has fascinated generations of designers. Among them was Russel Wright, whose dinnerware brought modernism (and plastic) to the tables of everyday Americans in the post-war years. Other designers from the same era, and also represented in SCRC’s archival holdings, from Marcel Breuer to Richard Neutra, were drawn to the seemingly limitless potential of plastic. At the same time, faculty in the university’s School of Architecture and the SU Humanities Center had recently hosted a symposium called “Plastic Modernities” that brought designers, theorists, historians, artists, and engineers together to consider plasticity as a concept, or design ideal. The symposium lasted just two days, but it helped the library identify a group of faculty members from various disciplines who would form an audience for the plastics collection. Chief among them was a professor of biomedical and chemical engineering, who heads up a research group that develops biodegradable, self-healing, and shape-memory polymers. Given that the university was in the midst of an ambitious billion-dollar capital campaign and that, in 2008, plastics represented America’s third-largest manufacturing sector, the dean, director of special
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