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A Laboratory for the Study of Las Vegas and Gaming

The discoveries made in the Libraries' Special Collections challenge the way that people think of Las Vegas and its place in the American landscape. Here's a taste.

Research  |  Oct 15, 2015  |  By Su Kim Chung

Researchers look through photographs of Las Vegas casinos during a visit to UNLV Libraries’ Special Collections (Aaron Mayes/UNLV Photo Services)

Locally, UNLV Libraries' Special Collections is well known for the reproductions of its historical photographs that grace the displays of museums and cultural heritage institutions throughout Southern Nevada. You’ll find its images and documents featured in displays the Mob Museum, Neon Museum, and Springs Preserve. However, perhaps less known is how its rich and varied research materials have inspired new works that expand knowledge of Las Vegas as both a tourist destination and as a community, and explores the nuances of gaming through a variety of disciplinary lenses.

Filmmakers, journalists, and scholars in a variety of disciplines from all over the the world visit Special Collections every year to search the unique material for their work — be it articles, documentary films, exhibits, or scholarly monographs. 

In honor of UNLV's Research Week, here is a selection of the scholarly works produced via recent research efforts in Special Collections. 

Scholarly Works

Mathematician Stewart Ethier (University of Utah) examined our 17th and 18th century French and English books on chance and probability for use in The Doctrine of Chances: Probabilistic Aspects of Gambling (2008). 

Noted architectural historian Martino Stierli (Curator, MoMA) examined photos and texts in Special Collections for his work Las Vegas in the Rearview Mirror: the City in Theory, Photography, and Film (2013).

Historic preservation expert Chris Nichols looked at drawings of the Sands Hotel in the Martin Stern Papers for his book The Leisure Architecture of Wayne McAllister (2007). 

Dartmouth historian Annelise Orleck spent many months combing through the Ruby Duncan Papers to produce Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty (2005).

Sociologist Jeff Sallaz (University of Arizona) examined a variety of materials from our gaming materials to provide context for his ethnographical study, The Labor of Luck: Casino Capitalism in the United States and South Africa (2009), and labor historian James Kraft (University of Hawaii) looked at oral histories, promotional collections, and the Elmer Rusco Papers for his work Vegas at Odds: Labor Conflict in a Leisure Economy, 1960 -1985 (2010). 

Historian Larry Gragg (University of Missouri Science & Technology) has spent years in Special Collections studying the social and cultural history of Las Vegas as revealed in the Sands Hotel Collection, Las Vegas City Commission minutes, Union Pacific Railroad Collection, dozens of oral histories, periodicals such as Fabulous Las Vegas, and many other sources.  From this material he has crafted over a dozen scholarly articles and two monographs: Bright Light City: Las Vegas in Popular Culture (2013) and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel: The Gangster, The Flamingo, and the Making of Modern Las Vegas (2015). 

Howard Cannon’s biographer, writer Michael Vernetti, made extensive use of the Cannon Papers for Senator Howard Cannon of Nevada: A Biography (2008), as did Liesel Carr Childers (University of Northern Iowa), who examined for them for an entirely different purpose in her UNLV history dissertation, which will be published as The Size of the Risk: Histories of Multiple Use in the Great Basin by the University of Oklahoma Press this fall. 

Another UNLV-history-graduate-student-turned-professor, Aaron McArthur, used our collections for the first monograph-length history on the tiny Mormon farming community covered by the waters of Lake Mead: St. Thomas, Nevada: A History Uncovered (2013).  

Dan Bubb, Coordinator of Academic Affairs for UNLV Honor’s College, used the Las Vegas City Commission Minutes and Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce Records in his history of Las Vegas aviation, Landing in Las Vegas: Commercial Aviation and the Making of a Tourist City (2012).

Closer to home, Special Collections’ own David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research, has written some seminal works in gaming history based on material found in Special Collections.  Suburban Xanadu: The Casino Resort on the Las Vegas Strip and Beyond (2003), Cutting the Wire: Gambling Prohibition and the Internet (2005), Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling (2006), and Grandissimo: the First Emperor of Las Vegas: How Jay Sarno Won a Casino Empire, Lost It, and Inspired Modern Las Vegas (2013) all relied on extensive research in our manuscript and oral history collections.

Eadington Fellows

The Eadington Fellows program sponsored by the Center for Gaming Research in Special Collections also actively supports the creation of new knowledge by funding the research residencies of promising PhD candidates, post-docs, and early career scholars from universities around the nation and the world.  Since 2007, fellows from disciplines as varied as history, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, religious studies, geography, film, urban planning, economics, art, political science, linguistics, and public policy have explored topics related to Las Vegas and gaming using the rich research materials available in Special Collections. 

As part of their residences, they are required to give a public lecture (which is recorded and available as a podcast) and provide a paper that becomes part of the the center’s Occasional Paper series. In 2013, a number of these papers were compiled into an edited volume, Frontiers in Chance: Gaming Research Across the Disciplines, by the UNLV Gaming Press

Ultimately, this research, whether in the form of monographs, articles, documentaries or exhibits, demonstrates the national and even international impact that our collections have had in the creation of new knowledge about our region and its main industry. This new knowledge challenges the way that people think of Las Vegas and its place in the American landscape and often expands the perception of gaming to reveal a highly faceted story that touches on a variety of disciplines.