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Stanford Libraries and the Cantor Arts Center collection of ancient coins

April 15, 2020
Glynn Edwards
Roman Republic, imperatorial issue by Julius Caesar, silver denarius, 48–48 BC, military mint moving with Caesar. Obverse: CAESAR; elephant r., trampling snake.

I would like to share the behind-the-scenes story of a recent project at Stanford Libraries: we received a sizable coin collection from the Cantor Arts Center and have been working over the past year and a half to make it accessible for use. In honor of its origins, this collection is called the Cantor Arts Center collection of ancient coins and it contains approximately 8,700 coins from the ancient world. Currently there are circa 300 coins fully cataloged that feature digital images online and three preassembled study sets for use in the Barchas Room in Special Collections at Green Library.

These sets can be paged, much as you would page a rare book or manuscript, for use during a class session:

  • Greek study set
  • Roman Republic study set
  • Roman Imperial study set #1

There are more coins and study sets in the pipeline – and they will hopefully be published to an online exhibit within the next quarter or two. We will add to or update the class study sets as new coins are cataloged.

A lot of discussion and energy went into making these coins available in a way that is compatible with the Libraries’ workflows and systems. When I started this project, neither Collection Development nor Special Collections had dedicated staff that could identify and catalog these ancient coins. We are, after all, more familiar with handling books and manuscripts (physical and digital) and printed material of all varieties—although we have other collections that have posed significant challenges (but that is a topic for another blog post…) Fortunately we were able to hire  Björn Buschbeck, a graduate student at Stanford with expertise in numismatics, to catalog these coins.  This project would not have been possible without the involvement of and partnership with Kathleen Smith, Curator for Germanic Collections & Medieval Studies, Laura Wilsey, Metadata Librarian & Cataloger, and Kristen St. John, Head of Conservation.

When we received it, this collection was stored in multiple boxes arranged chronologically with a notecard index and handwritten lists, which is an arrangement far more suitable for the use of a private collector rather than a library or academic institution. Since we are a library, not a museum, the goal became to catalog these coins in a manner that aligned with our Searchworks catalog system (no easy task!) and to store them in properly secure, easily accessible cabinets in our secure vault.

As a lapsed Classics major, I have found this project both fascinating and challenging. Archivists are often dropped into collections for which they may have little previous experience and need to get up to speed quickly. Sometimes this process can be mysterious for our users, and I hope this post illustrates the many moving pieces! As part of the research process, I visited the Smithsonian’s numismatics collection and met with their staff for a few hours about their procedures, storage, access, etc. After that, I contacted other repositories about their specific polices and storage methods. Once we had more information about how my colleagues in the field handle these types of materials, I worked closely with colleagues and departments at my own institution. Together we selected the most suitable and appropriate storage and housing for our collections; and, more importantly, determined how to make the use of coins in classes straightforward for our Faculty and our Public Services team. The Metadata Department was very hands-on in helping to create ways of recording the necessary information; for example, book cataloging rarely requires information such as the dynasty of creation or the mint, or the weight! There were many, many meetings involved, and this process involved a great deal of time and energy on the part of everyone involved in working together to solve this challenge. When you look at the Searchworks records, you will see the fruits of all this labor. The online records and images are truly remarkable!

The first step forward in making the physical coins available was the decision to create preassembled study trays, since that would address the most pressing need: the requests to use these coins in classroom sessions. Since this project is ongoing, it will by necessity be iterative and adaptive, but taking this first step is foundational in moving forward.   

To use one of the study sets, tnterested faculty should either contact Special Collections Public Services group (specialcollections@stanford.edu) or Kathleen Smith (ksmith11@stanford.edu). I would like to give special thanks to Matt Marostica, AUL for Collection Development, for funding the purchase of our cabinet and trays, and to my colleagues for their help and support in this challenge

Our Policies & Procedures for Using Coins in Special Collections @ Stanford Libraries page has more information about use, if faculty are interested in coins that have not yet been cataloged.

Björn is still cataloging coins – although his current work is based on a series of coins he photographed before we had to shelter at home. They should go into the digital repository in a few months and be published to the catalog. Here are two coins from the next batch.

Sicily, Syracuse (struck under Agathocles), silver tetradrachm, 317–289 BC. Wreathed head of Arethusa l, three dolphins around, NK below neck Alexander III "the Great", Kingdom of Macedonia, silver tetradrachm, 332–323 BC, Memphis (Egypt) mint. Head of beardless Heracles r., wearing lion skin headdress

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