Archives provide new home for Exeter's treasures

Two centuries of history and some of the Academy's rarest gifts highlight the Center for Archives and Special Collections.

Patrick Garrity
October 26, 2021

The reading room in the Center for Archives and Special Collections offers space for research and functions.

Two floors below the splendor of Rockefeller Hall and its soaring reaches and downstairs from the warm confines of the Library Commons, the Class of 1945 Library's latest treasure awaits discovery.

The Center for Archives and Special Collections, quietly opened on the library's bottom floor amid the grip of the pandemic, is home to Exeter history and its rarest cultural and literary gems. Once a dreary basement filled with two centuries of the Academy's past, the space has come to life through the vision of now-retired Librarian Gail Scanlon, the artistry of Ann Beha Architects and the generosity of the family of Jay N. Whipple Jr. '51. Today, as the library celebrates its first 50 years, it has a new resource for its next 50 and beyond.

Magdaline "Magee" Lawhorn, the head of Archives and Special Collections since 2019, helped shepherd the project to the finish and is the proud keeper of a space she hopes becomes a popular destination for Exeter students.

"People value their own history, and they want to collect their own story for future generations," Lawhorn said. "But I think now the field has shifted to be like, 'OK, we're not just here to hoard things and preserve them, we have to create teachable moments from these resources or else, they're just taking up valuable space.'

"I want these collections to be seen. I don't want us to just hide them somewhere. Because at the end of the day, yes, we're supposed to preserve and protect these materials for humanity, but at the same time, if we're protecting them to the point where they're inaccessible, we're doing a disservice to humanity as a whole."

Lawhorn recently offered a tour of the revamped space to reveal some of the center's new spaces:

The Whipple vault

The Jay Whipple Special Collections Vault is one of the jewels of the redesigned space. The vault features a state-of-the-art fire suppression system. “[The Whipple family] understood that we need to preserve the history of the school,” Lawhorn said. “We have the Shakespeare folios, we have first editions — things that like, we might want to either showcase here, which is nice to have like a showpiece area, but also things that we just want to protect.”


Rare books and first editions

Exeter has been gifted some wonderful collections and libraries through the years. First editions include the works of Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, John Updike, John Steinbeck and more. “Many of these were gifts, or, for instance, we have Jeremiah Smith’s personal library back there,” Lawhorn said. “A lot personal collections and personal working libraries donated over time.”


The archives

When your school was founded five months before the British surrender at Yorktown, you have a lot of history to preserve. Digitization efforts are continuous, but the archives features shelves and shelves of documents, publications, research papers and other memorabilia saved since Exeter’s early days.


The vitrines

Six new glass display cases allow the archivists to show off some of the school’s most prized possessions, safely and thematically. “People can access it on all sides, which I think is important,” Lawhorn said. “I enjoy this more versus sometimes just hanging something on a wall. It makes it more user-friendly.”


Exonians in print

There is no lack of authors in Exeter’s alumni rolls, and the archives has published works from hundreds of them dating back to graduates from the 1800s.


A classroom

The addition of a classroom provides space for faculty and students to study the center’s treasures together. English Instructor Eimer Page’s seniors visited recently to pore over the Academy’s Second and Fourth Shakespeare folios, the former first published in 1632. “We concentrated on Hamlet and the discrepancies between the folios and the 21st century versions,” Lawhorn said. The class space, sandwiched between the offices of Lawhorn and her assistant, makes it easier to put Exeter's past into the hands of current students (adorned in gloves, of course).