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Vail Collection at MIT

The Vail crest

Dering’s library was shipped to Boston in 96 massive shipping crates, just as MIT was preparing to move from cramped quarters in Boston’s Back Bay to its imposing new campus on the Cambridge bank of the Charles River Basin.

It took five years to assign Dewey Decimal Classification numbers to the thousands of books and pamphlets in the collection. Books that weren’t already hardbound were bound uniformly in green library buckram. The DDC number was stamped in gold on each spine along with a handsome “Vail Library” crest, and a Vail Library bookplate was inserted into each volume.

The rare books in the collection were sequestered and served to readers one at a time, by request, in a secure environment. But the bulk of the collection was available to an eager MIT readership in open stacks, and the books saw heavy use. MIT continued to add to the collection to keep it current, and electrical engineering, unsurprisingly, saw the most expansion.

As in all major research libraries, MIT’s library collections have increased in size each year since the Libraries were founded. On-campus stack space being finite, the Libraries have always had to make decisions regarding which materials merited the acquisition of multiple copies, which titles should be kept on campus, which could be transferred to remote storage, and so on.

With the passage of time, most titles in the Vail Collection became more valuable for their historical interest than for their currency. But before Vail titles were moved into storage, those materials that had been collected by George Edward Dering were identified and transferred into the Libraries’ rare and special collections.

The MIT Libraries began creating electronic catalog records (as an alternative to the card catalog) in the 1970s. During the 1980s, “retrospective conversion” projects were undertaken to create electronic records for books already on the shelves, utilizing the information on catalog cards that had been created earlier. By the 1990s, most of the Libraries’ working collections were accessible via the Libraries’ online catalog.

But rare books and other “special collections” were bypassed during this process for two reasons: first, retrospective conversion was inadequate for the in-depth description required for rare books. Second, the Libraries naturally focused their resources on the high-demand working collections that were most immediately relevant to the teaching and research needs of the Institute.

J. Taisner. Opusculum Perpetua Memoria Dignissimum, 1562

As a result, the MIT Libraries’ rare book collections, like those at many of our peer institutions, were available for research but became more difficult to find: the only way to locate rare and special volumes was via a microfiche catalog that reflected the Libraries’ holdings as of the 1960s.

Now, thanks to the generosity of Thomas F. Peterson, Jr. (MIT 1957), the Vail Collection has been fully cataloged and has received essential conservation. The collection is completely searchable in Barton, the MIT Libraries’ catalog. Vail titles have been featured in courses taught by faculty in the History Department, in Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, in Writing & Humanistic Studies, and in Comparative Media Studies. Vail materials have been shared with incoming students as part of the Freshman Pre-Orientation Period, and Vail titles invariably turn up in presentations and exhibits.

We hope you enjoy exploring the collection!