Skip to main content

Newark Life

A vast storehouse of history is open to everyone at the University of Delaware Library

Oct 02, 2015 02:31PM ● By Steven Hoffman

With roots dating back to its original charter in 1758, Newark (or NewArk as it was originally called) has a rich history that's intertwined with that of Delaware and the tristate region. If you've lived here for decades, or if you're a recent arrival, the wide, diverse aspects of the town's beginnings are a fascinating trail to follow.

The scattershot approach of an internet search for Newark's history is one thing, but to get the facts – the real objects that tell a story, and the context in which they existed – there's a nearly inexhaustible storehouse on the second floor of the University of Delaware Library. Special Collections is available to everyone, and much of it is viewable on your computer.

Special Collections comprises the Special Collections Department, the Manuscripts and Archives Department, and the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, which is on loan to the University of Delaware Library. Stacked on seemingly endless shelves in the library are the touchstones of Delaware history –

books, manuscripts, maps, prints and graphic materials, broadsides, periodicals, pamphlets, photographs, audio-visual material, ephemera and just about everything else from the 15th century to the present.

According to L. Rebecca Johnson Melvin, the librarian and head of the manuscripts and archives department at the University of Delaware Library, “Special Collections houses the rare books, special topical collections, manuscripts, archives, photographs, maps, graphic materials, ephemera collections, audio-visual materials, and electronic records that comprise the primary historical sources and special collecting areas of the library. These collecting areas focus on the academic program strengths of the University of Delaware.”

When it comes to Delaware history, for example, Special Collections is a goldmine.

“There are significant holdings related to history and Delawareana,” Melvin said. “Chemistry; history of science and technology; the fine, decorative, and applied arts; English, American, and Irish literature; and horticulture and landscape architecture. Many subject areas, such as the history of the book and book arts, are collected comprehensively and used for interdisciplinary research. The subject of paper making, for example, is important to regional history, as in the Curtis Paper Mill on Paper Mill Road, but may also be studied for chemistry of paper making, technology of mills, economics, or for the aesthetics of its use in bookmaking and decorative arts.

“Special Collections holds rare books and archival collections in all of these collecting areas that are available for all Delawareans and indeed world scholars to use,” Melvin said. “Research is conducted on-site and some information is provided to users via online reference services.”

Once you visit the Special Collections site (, the wealth of material is overwhelming – but a whole lot of fun to wander around in.

“Newark is certainly a focus of the Delaware Collection, and many members of the community have used the library resources for family histories, information about businesses on Main Street, property searches, architectural histories, and other information,” Melvin said. “The sources in Special Collections were particularly useful for the 250th anniversary of Newark in 2008, and heavily used to illustrate the book 'Histories of Newark, 1758-2008 : 75 stories about Newark, Delaware, and its citizens.'”

The topics being researched through Special Collections, Melvin said, “have varied -- from information about tangent stones in the Mason Dixon Line to 1970s-era poetry and music of Newark. Many items related to this topic are currently on display in the exhibit at the Delaware Art Museum, 'Dream Streets.'

"A growing number of digital collections using Special Collections material are available from the Library,” Melvin said. “One of the most popular is the Delaware Postcard Collection. Images from this collection were featured on a regular basis in the Newark Post. The collection, which is viewable online, features more than 2,000 Delaware postcards, scanned front and back, that you can examine in detail with a zoom-in feature. They focus on tourist-centric locations such as Rehoboth or historic monuments, but many of them show places that you'd never expect to be featured on a postcard.

It's the unique, personal items that perhaps say the most about how people lived in bygone eras. You can page through Agnes P. Medill Boys' and Girls' Liberty Clubs of Delaware scrapbook compiled from 1918 to 1922, and see photographs, news clippings, and information that Agnes P. Medill kept when she was employed by the Delaware College Extension Service to organize Boys' and Girls' Liberty Clubs in the Delaware public schools.

“During the 1918 school year, she organized at least 15 clubs throughout Delaware schools,” Melvin said.

Special Collections has also collected vital oral histories from Newark residents to preserve their stories. They include 37 interviews documenting the history of the Iron Hill School No. 112C, which was one of the African American schools built in Delaware with funds provided by Pierre S. du Pont. Printed transcripts and the recordings themselves are online.

Then there's the Chrysler Corporation Newark Assembly Plant oral history collection, with digital audio interviews with 12 former employees of the plant. These interviews were conducted by University of Delaware students in 2011.

Melvin also singled out a collection of 22 oral history interviews of people who lived in the New London Road/Cleveland Avenue community in Newark. “These interviews, collected during two oral history projects by University of Delaware professor Bernard L. Herman and students from 2004 to 2006, feature members of the New London Road community and discuss various aspects of life in the predominantly African-American community,” Melvin said. “The collection contains transcripts of selected interviews created by students, as well as research data, recipes, and galley proofs for the book 'Food Always Brings People Together: Recipes, Poems, and Stories from the New London Road Community, Newark, Delaware,' written by the University of Delaware Center for Material Culture Studies, under the direction of professor Herman. The interviews and transcripts are linked to the collection description, as is another project, an audio walking tour using excerpts from the oral histories.”

The Delaware Collection encompasses all areas of the state, but has particular strengths in Newark and New Castle County. Some collections document Delaware politics and political history. These holdings include the personal papers of Rep. Thomas R. Carper, and Senators George Gray, Willard Saulsbury, Willard Saulsbury, Jr., J. Allen Frear, Jr., John J. Williams, Ted Kaufman, and Joe Biden.

Family papers of Delaware residents present the daily and business life in the state over the past several hundred years. Collections include the Latimer Family Papers (1690-1927), which includes prominent figures such as James Latimer (1719-1807), founder of Newport, Del., and Henry Latimer, a surgeon in the Continental Army; the personal, professional, and family papers of James Curtis Booth (1810-1888), a chemist and the first state geologist of Delaware; and the notebooks and diaries of Delaware resident and physician John Janvier Black (1837-1909).

One particularly intriguing collection is the archive of 48 volumes of typescripts compiled and written by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration for Delaware in 1938 for the guidebook, “Delaware: A Guide to the First State.” This archive includes hundreds of short essays on Delaware history, buildings, and people.

When it comes to research, the most mundane things become vitally important. In Special Collections, you'll find a large collection of city directories, commercial directories, telephone books, and maps dating from the early 19th century that provide essential starting points for research. A collection of account books, ledgers, and receipt books from various individuals and firms includes that of Gilbert W. Chambers, a blacksmith in Newark, for 1890-1899, and 1908-1921. And there's a guest register and account book for the Deer Park Hotel for the period 1944-1952.

When it comes to images, the collection includes a series of pencil drawings of Newark by Seth C. Brace, done between 1842 and 1844, when he was a member of the faculty of Newark College, which later became the University of Delaware. Trade catalogs and other advertising ephemera also depict Delaware locations and are often the only existing images of buildings that no longer exist.

One of the most notable sources of historical architecture information is “Historic Buildings of Newark, Delaware.” The State Historical Division and the Newark Planning Department commissioned this inventory of all pre-1945 buildings, sites, and structures in Newark. Thirty-seven of the sites were nominated to the National Register of Historic Places based on their significance. Descriptions include National Register numbers keyed to tax maps, which help locate the properties.

There are separate collections of Newark-related photographs housed in Special Collections. “University of Delaware Photographs” includes photos of buildings, faculty, student groups and special events on campus and in the city of Newark. These photographs span 1833 to 1961.

Getting the chance to read diaries and journals is like stepping into the shoes of the long-departed. The Special Collections area holds the journal of Lucian Cyrus Boynton from 1835-1853. He was a lawyer and comments on religion, nature, and higher learning.

In a diary kept by Joseph Cleaver in 1853 and 1854, the Delaware College student reflects on student life at the college, curriculum, and involvement in the Athenaean Society. You can also look through the poignant memories of Jennie Wilds and Caddie Lynch, whose autograph albums and daguerreotypes date from 1856 and 1857, when Jennie Wilds attended the Deer Park Seminary for young women, located at the Deer Park Hotel in Newark. Her friend Caddie Lynch also attended the Deer Park Seminary in 1856-1857. The two autograph albums in this collection belonged to Wilds and Lynch and bear sentimental inscriptions from many of their school friends.

It's that kind of hands-on contact with history that makes Special Collections very special for anyone interested in probing the past.

Special Collections in the University of Delaware Library is located on the second floor of Morris Library (181 S College Ave, Newark). Special Collections is open Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on Tuesdays until 8 p.m. The Special Collections exhibition gallery is open during the same hours.

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to Newark Life's free newsletter to catch every headline