Florence Fearrington, a 1958 UNC graduate, donated a rare book collection this summer valued at $6.2 million to University Libraries, which will be added to the Wilson Special Collections Library. Fearrington’s gift of over 4,000 books and objects is made up of several sub-collections, including natural history and children’s literature.
Elizabeth Ott, curator of rare books at UNC, said Fearrington and her husband began collecting books together, and when her husband passed away, Fearrington continued to build this collection on her own. Together, they developed an interest in natural history, and created collections in this area. Two of the sub-collections included in Fearrington’s contribution to UNC are a Wunderkammer collection and malacology collection.
Wunderkammer is a German word, meaning cabinets of wonder, or curiosities, Ott said. According to a University Communications article, Fearrington's collection includes books, catalogs and prints on Wunderkammers.
“Florence and her husband had wide-ranging interests, and if they saw books they loved, they would acquire them," Ott said. "So it has a certain amount of material that spoke to them and sparked their interest."
She said Fearrington’s contribution also includes children’s literature about the natural world, and a malacology collection that documents the study of shells, mollusks and conchs.
Fearrington graduated from UNC in 1958 with a degree in mathematics, and eventually moved to New York City to enter the world of finance.
“If you can imagine being a woman in the world of finance in the early 1960s in New York City, it definitely was a man’s world and she succeeded in it,” said Ott.
Fearrington continued to defy gender roles as she progressed into the realm of book collecting, which Ott said was kind of a “man’s world” at the time as well.
Her interest in shells and books about shells began during the summers she spent collecting them on the coast of North Carolina in her childhood. She then became interested in others who collected shells, and the books that documented these collections.
“For her, that was kind of the connection back to North Carolina,” Ott said, regarding Fearrington’s decision to donate this collection to UNC.
According to the University Communications article, Fearrington has previously contributed to the University Libraries’ Rare Book Collection, and in 2016, donated $5 million to support the Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library.
Ott also spoke to why this collection is considered rare, saying that oftentimes, people associate rare books simply with being old.
“And that’s definitely true of a lot of books in this collection,” Ott said. “But there’s also rare in the sense of cherished, rare in the sense of important and valued. And that's the sense that we use when we think about Florence's collection. Many of them are scarce; they're not many copies. But beyond that scarcity, they teach us valuable things about how we came to be where we are.”
Ott also said the books are important in the sense that since the natural world is constantly changing ecologically, it is valuable to see what the ecology of different spaces around the globe were like at the point in time when the work was created.
“[The books] really give us a lot of evidence for what the natural world has been and how that compares to how it is now,” said Ott.
Emily Kader, rare book research librarian at UNC, explained how the children’s literature in Fearrington's collection will be beneficial to education classes at UNC. She said she works with an education class that designs their own children’s books, and that students could explore the children’s literature collection before making their own.
“This will really enhance that experience and give them a lot to work with,” said Kader. “My sense of it is it’s really going to open up a lot of really exciting avenues.”
Ott said that the collection expands on subjects and opportunities for students to engage with shared cultural heritage.
“I think that Florence’s collections carry us into new arenas where we can start to ask some new types of questions about ecocriticism, or about colonialism, the history of collecting about the book itself as an object,” said Ott. “We’re looking forward to incorporating those into our classroom instruction.”
Ott said an exhibition is in the works, and will hopefully take place in 2021. The exhibition would provide an opportunity for students to view selections of items from the collection. Ott mentioned the importance of students having access to these items to use and learn from, and said there shouldn’t be a need to lock them away.
“In the North Carolina collection at Wilson Library, we’ve long had great Natural History Collections that document the natural history of the Carolinas, so the flora and fauna that are traditionally found in the Piedmont region,” said Ott. “This collection gives us an additional strength and natural history that I think makes us a destination for scholars around the world who studied this topic.”
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