The Great Unknown

SDSU Special Collections librarians work to get the department’s vast holdings online

Special Collections facts

What history books document in broad strokes, newspapers record in intimate detail.

Despite their value as a source for day-to-day events, and, sometimes, their singularity in recording truly local news, newspapers are fragile and quickly fall apart.

And yet, almost 100 years of Daily Aztec issues (and previous incarnations the Normal News and the Paper Lantern) survive in Special Collections.

The papers have triumphed over the passage of time, thanks to painstaking preservation efforts by university archivists, but locating specific articles is not always easy.

“If you could narrow it down to one year, you’d be dealing with maybe four or five of these large volumes,” said Digital Collections Librarian Melissa Lamont. “If you could only narrow it down to a decade, you’d have a few dozen or more volumes to sift through.”

The big dig

That’s exactly what Special Collections Director Robert Ray found recently when a Hollywood producer came to campus to look at the collection of Carl Panzram papers, which are held in the department.

John Borowski was doing research for a documentary on the life of Panzram, a murderer so brutal and unrepentant, during his execution he reportedly shouted, “Hurry up … I could kill ten men while you’re fooling around!”

“It was in the acknowledgments section of a book where I read it mentioned that San Diego State University Special Collections holds the original handwritten Panzram autobiographical papers,” Borowski said. “It also stated that Henry Lesser, Panzram's prison guard and friend, donated the Panzram Papers to the university.”

Some of the oldest and most valuable
items are kept in a vault with four
levels of security

There was also a photo with a caption that read, “Henry Lesser, lecturing at San Diego State University in 1979.”

While helping Borowski browse the archives, Ray realized that neither he, nor anyone else in Special Collections, knew why Lesser donated the Panzram papers to SDSU. If he could locate coverage of the 1979 lecture in the Daily Aztec, perhaps he could find the link between a killer, his prison guard and the university.

Preservation and access

In coming years, finding answers to questions big and small will get a lot easier. Right now, a lot of the world’s information lies in local repositories, often behind locked doors, as is the case with Special Collections.

By digitizing items, archivists can scan books and papers, put them online and, using optical character recognition technology, enable full text searching of the documents.

Student retouches photo
Student assistant Alexander Jarman
retouches a digital scan of an old
Homecoming photo

It is an expensive and painstaking process because of the sheer number of items in any given archive and the manpower needed to delicately scan them all. However, digitization dovetails perfectly with the mission of Special Collections, which is to preserve and provide access to the university’s holdings in support of research and teaching.

“We’ve always wanted people to be able to share and experience this material, but we have to do it in a way that preserves it,” said Ray. “With digital tools, we can do all of those things, and actually in a better way than we ever dreamed of in the past.”

Every bit counts

SDSU librarians have just started their first concerted effort to digitize one segment of the department’s massive holdings — 40,000 university images spanning the tenures of five presidents.

The Adams postcard collection
has more than one quarter million
cards from San Diego and California

Currently, if you wish to view these items, you must visit a remote corner of the library during limited business hours, wait for a librarian to retrieve the items you want to look at and sift through them under tight supervision.

However, once these items are made digital and a suitable image management system is found, this visual history of San Diego State can be called up from any computer following a simple search.

Collections under consideration to go digital next are the Adams postcard collection, which contains over one quarter million cards from San Diego and California; the sheet music collection, whose items are sometimes less desired for their music than the stories their covers reveal; and the student newspapers.

Sheet music covers
The sheet music collection is less desirable for its music than for its covers.
“These are wonderful windows into 19th century American culture,” said Ray.

Considering that the Special Collections vault also holds such one-of-a-kind valuables as the first diagram of a sun-centered solar system by Copernicus and books of Gregorian chants likely dating back to the 17th century, a local publication like the Daily Aztec might seem an unlikely candidate for global accessibility.

They might not fetch much at auction, but they are also one-of-a-kind in that they contain campus historical minutiae that most likely exist nowhere else. Every piece of information, no matter how small, no matter how local, relates to something larger. By bringing seemingly isolated information together in one place (the Internet), digitization puts the puzzles together.

Robert Ray
Robert Ray joined Special Collections last
year as director.

“Digitization fosters the discovery of previously unknown relationships and ultimately, new knowledge,” Ray said.

Still looking

Ray never found the Daily Aztec coverage of the lecture, and, after copious research that sent him 100 miles south to San Diego, Borowski found only part of what he was looking for.

The answers to these questions wait quietly behind someone else’s locked doors, just waiting to go digital.

Related information


  • Story by Lauren Coartney
  • Graphics by John Signer
  • Photographs by Tom Farrington, Instructional Technology Services
    and Aaron J. Hoskins
  • Edited by Coleen Geraghty
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