The Dummy and the Vault

A dummy tells a librarian to look for a book in a vault, but what if that vault no longer exists* in reality? This is not a premise for a Twilight Zone episode, but describes how the State of Arizona Research Library protects its rare books.

Scattered throughout the Arizona Collection are “dummy” books, which are often book-sized wooden planks wrapped in brown paper, and bearing a call number directing library staff where to find the real book. In other institutions, and in the Research Library’s past, the “dummy” book is a place holder in open stacks and refers patrons to library staff who may retrieve the real book from closed stacks.

“Dummy books” in the Arizona Collection

But some “dummy” books direct us to very closed stacks.  When he reported on his facilities in 1940, State Librarian Mulford Winsor noted that “Separate quarters for special collections, to which access may be had only under supervision, obviate confusion and safeguard against loss. Enclosed and locked bookshelves and vault space lend extra protection to rare items”.

In this case Winsor meant a literal vault. This combination safe, housed in the reading room of the former state library, held older and valuable books Winsor collected. It was the most secure location in the 1938 Capitol Addition: At one time, the vault housed the State Constitution of Arizona.


As times change, vaults change. The Polly Rosenbaum History and Archives building currently houses the ‘vault’ books behind two restricted-access doors secured by modern electronic badge readers. For a time, locked cabinets took the place of a vault to hold rare items, but now these books sit on a special set of shelves in a climate controlled warehouse pod. Arizona Collection librarians have added to this collection after considering a book’s age, condition, and scarcity, with a focus on those produced during Arizona’s Territorial period, or before.

Some of the oldest-looking volumes look imposing:  A three-volume set of Monarquia Indiana by Fray Juan de Torquemada has been rebound in vellum with hand-lettered spine titles and decorations. It is the second edition, printed in Madrid, about 1723.

Books 1

Another vellum-bound volume is the Crónica seráfica y apostólica del colegio de Propaganda Fide de la Santa Cruz de Querétaro en la Nueva España, by Juan Domingo Arricivita. Technology protecting this volume has progressed even further; now patrons don’t even have to touch the original to see a copy: Google Books has digitized it.

Not every volume is quite so old, or related to pre-territorial history. The ‘vault’ also preserves a physical copy of Thomas Edwin Farish’s eight volume History of Arizona, from 1916-1918, of which volumes 1-3 are also available on the Arizona Memory Project.

Whatever form the library’s books take, from print to digital, the State of Arizona Research Library systems work to balance access with preservation and security, making them available to patrons, while not getting lost in some… well, you know what Rod Serling says.

*The original vault does still exist, but we don’t keep books in it anymore.