LOGAN — The air is cool inside the vault as the curator turns on the lights after opening the door with a special key.
This space is reserved for the most precious items in Utah State University's Special Collections. The 44 first-edition books are carefully covered, near 39 boxes of manuscripts and letters — just a portion of the second largest collection of Jack London primary source materials in the world.
"It's extremely remarkable that we have it here," said Ann Buttars, USU Special Collections curator of Western and Mormon Americana. "We're a very remote place, and for this to come here, it's really a tribute to our library and our English department."
Buttars' favorite items in the London collection are the first-edition books, including such notable titles as "The Call of the Wild" and "White Fang." In the 1960s, Utah State University purchased the books in an auction with the help of an anonymous donor.
London originally gave the books to his second wife, Charmian, and wrote inscriptions in each, which became more affectionate as the years progressed, beginning with the publication of "The Son of the Wolf" in 1900.
At first, London's inscriptions are addressed simply, "Dear Charmian." In 1916, the year he died, London refers to Charmian as "Dearest Mate" inside "The Little Lady of the Big House."
London writes, "The years pass. You and I pass. But yet our love abides — more finely, more deeply, more surely, for we have built our love for each other, not upon the sand, but upon the rock."
"You can sort of see the closeness of their relationship through the inscriptions," Buttars said.
Many of the first edition books also contain photographs of London pasted to the pages. London is depicted in adventurous scenes, indicative of the life he lived. In the photos, he can be seen riding a horse, Belle; standing on a board ready to jump in the water; and visiting with children overseas as a war correspondent.
"He wasn't afraid to try anything," Buttars said. "One minute he was boating. The next minute he was off horse riding, and the next minute was in the Klondike searching for gold. He was an adventurer, no doubt about it."
USU Special Collections also has more than 2,000 manuscripts and letters, including ones London wrote and received. The manuscripts were donated to the university in two installments by the family of London's nephew, Irving Shepard, who was the executor of London's estate. King Hendricks, an English professor at USU, had formed a relationship with Shepard in the course of his research on London, and Buttars believes that contributed to the donations.
Michael Sweeney, who chairs USU's Department of Journalism and Communication, has utilized the collection for an article he wrote on the Russo-Japanese War being critical to the development of war-time censorship and propaganda.
London was a war correspondent on the Korean peninsula covering the Japanese army in that war, and Sweeney fondly recalls reviewing London's reporting notebooks in his research.
"You get a feel for history that you don't get from reading a history book," Sweeney said. "You get the special kind of icy chill. You get the goosebumps and all that. It's history that's totally unvarnished. You're seeing and hearing what he thought at the time."
Finally, the collection also includes 463 books that were part of Jack and Charmian London's personal library.
"There really isn't much more out there to expand upon," Buttars said. "You really don't see anything of Jack London come on the market anymore. I think people have acquired what was out there."