June 06, 2017

Special Collections center helps solve century-old mystery

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- The Special Collections Research Center at Southern Illinois University Carbondale has played a key role in solving a century-old mystery.

Scholars knew that Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen rendezvoused somewhere in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1917, sharing stories of the wartime horrors they had witnessed. The discussions and idea exchanges that took place at the get-together, dubbed by some researchers as “potentially the most powerful meeting of English literature in the 20th century,” formed the basis for the future writings of the acclaimed war poets. Morris Library’s SCRC was the key to figuring out where this pivotal meeting took place and the answer received extensive publicity in Europe.

Neil McLennan, a senior lecturer and director of leadership programs at Scotland’s Aberdeen University and former head of history at Tynecastle School in Edinburgh, has conducted extensive research on both sides of the ocean into World War I poets, particularly Owen. After spending a decade searching for information within United Kingdom libraries and archives, he discovered a letter from Sassoon to Graves, written on stationary from the Craiglockhart War Hospital, where Owen and Sassoon met while undergoing treatment for shellshock.  The letter was in SIU’s Special Collections Research Center.

That letter and subsequent missives revealed that the trio met at the Baberton Golf Club in Juniper Green on the outskirts of Edinburgh. The location was apparently chosen because Sassoon had a golf match he didn’t want to cancel so he invited the other two men to join him there. The club is still in existence today. The location where Owen, Graves and Sassoon met is significant because the gathering played such a key role in the success of the three notable war poets, according to McLennan.

McLennan’s discovery has resulted in extensive media coverage in the UK. Learning that SIU’s Special Collections Research Center is at the heart of solving a mystery 100 years in the making comes as no surprise to Pam Hackbart-Dean, the center’s director. 

“Special Collections Research Center is a place of exploration and discovery,” Hackbart-Dean said. “Scholars and students use our collections to write new histories, explore significant lives, study change, trace the evolution of print, understand cultural shifts and create new literature. Over time, both our holdings and our vision have grown – expanding from an early emphasis on regional history to a global perspective and complementing a focus on traditional academic disciplines with transformative possibilities. We encourage amateur sleuths to uncover their mysteries in Special Collections.”

The SCRC, located on the first floor of Morris Library, houses an extensive assortment of unique and rare historical items including rare books, political papers, letters, manuscripts and much more. The collection features a clay tablet from Senkereh, in present-day Iraq, that is believed to date to 2400-2200 B.C.; a page from the Johannes Gutenberg Bible, the world’s first printed book, inked in Mainz, Germany, 1450-1455; a handwritten copy of a speech Abraham Lincoln delivered several times in the mid-1850s; a letter written by Amelia Earheart; and documents highlighting the criminal enterprises of Charlie Birger, including a pass for his hanging, the last public one in Illinois.

Anyone is welcome to visit the SCRC. It is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday or Friday by appointment. For more information, call 618/453-2516 or email speccoll@lib.siu.edu