Smith College Admission Academics Student Life About Smith news Offices

Objects Are Documents

Sylvia Plath’s journal, 1950. Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College. © Estate of Sylvia Plath.

/ Published September 24, 2010

During Interterm 2011, Karen Kukil, associate curator of special collections at Smith, will teach Smith students how to edit correspondence from the Sylvia Plath Collection. Focusing on archival materials in the Mortimer Rare Book Room, students will read and edit Plath's unpublished letters written to her Smith friends.

Kukil has spent the past 30 years exploring literary subjects "in the round" and the secrets of special collections. In this 2010 talk before the first International Biography Conference, she revealed the rich discoveries she shares with her students while teaching with manuscripts, particularly Smith's literary collection. Here are excerpts from that talk.

"Objects are documents." I can still hear Wilmarth Lewis, the great collector and editor of British writer Horace Walpole, saying those words more than 30 years ago when I began my career as a librarian in special collections. During his lifetime, Mr. Lewis reassembled the contents of Walpole's Gothic villa, Strawberry Hill, near the Thames in Twickenham, in his own colonial house on the banks of the Pequabuck River in Farmington, Connecticut, where it remains and is now owned by Yale University.

The first time I opened one of Walpole's books and discovered a long gray hair in the gutter and a blue bottle fly squashed in the margin, goose bumps covered my body. I was hooked. Here I was actually holding hands with the 18th century, and I have never forgotten the rush from that experience.

Since then I have always studied my subjects in the round — manuscipts, books, photographs, paintings, furniture, landscapes, etc.

Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill.

After working as an archivist at Yale's Beinecke Library, I came to Smith College in 1990. My primary responsibilities for the past 20 years at Smith have been to curate the Mortimer Rare Book Room's modern literary collections, which include Bloomsbury iconography, more than 200 manuscripts by Virginia Woolf, and more than four thousand pages of Sylvia Plath's letters, poem drafts, and journals.

I also teach and provide reference services in the Smith Archives and the Sophia Smith Collection, the oldest archive of women's history in the country with over 600 collections. In total there are 40,000 rare books and more than 20,000 feet of archives and manuscripts at Smith. All are cataloged and many of the manuscript collections have online finding aids.

These collections are made available to all undergraduates, faculty, and visiting scholars. Visitors simply show us a photo ID and fill out a registration form. You can bring paper, pencils, laptops, and digital cameras into our reading rooms.

Among the most sought-after collections by students and biographers alike are the papers of Virginia Woolf, the Bloomsbury Group and Sylvia Plath '55.