Ready or not, parts of the country are beginning to reopen, but opportunities to exercise those mental muscles do exist for those of us still homebound. Even before the pandemic, the National Archives put out a call for volunteer researchers and catalogers to assist with transcribing the vast trove of materials held by the nation's record keeper, and they still need help.
Via History Hub, the crowdsourcing arm of the Archives website, participants are asked sign up and create a user profile. Then, volunteers select a "campaign" or topic that interests them, whether that's scouring military records or reviewing women's suffrage reports--the selection is vast. Topic-centric forums allow transcribers to reach out to the community for assistance deciphering material and sleuthing clues.
The Archives' stated goal is to have its entire physical collection available online, but it won't happen on its own. So, if you've binge-watched enough Tiger King for one pandemic, why not dust off your bibliographic skills and put them to good use?
The first major exhibition to explore the hidden collections of rare books in the north west of England features the work of William Morris, Kate Greenaway, and the prolific Harry Rountree, who provided illustrations for many magazines and novels including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and P.G. Wodehouse.
Holding the Vision: Collecting the Art of the Book in the Industrial North West opened just before lockdown at the Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery but is now available online in an ongoing series of blog posts by its curator Dr. Cynthia Johnston from the Institute of English Studies, University of London.
Signal-boosting the virtual book launch of Nick’s new book, to be hosted live by Knopf and the National Park Service on June 2 at 7:00 p.m. Tune in to hear Nick discuss Cross of Snow, his new literary biography of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The program will include illustrated remarks by Basbanes, discussion with Longfellow House archivist Kate Hanson Plass, and a facilitated Q&A with viewers. You do not want to miss this!
This event is free, but you must click here to register in advance. Once you register, you will receive details on how to join the event.
Filed under more ‘antiquarian bookseller innovations’ this spring, Second Story Books of Washington, D.C., and Rockville, Maryland, has begun holding auctions with Invaluable. Currently it is hosting its second auction, featuring maps and military memorabilia, including a large collection of WWI posters. The latter are particularly fun to peruse — you have the mainstay James Montgomery Flagg “I Want You” poster pictured above, plus a selection of scarcely seen vintage war posters. The “Scrap of Paper” enlistment poster is neat because it features an ivory scroll displaying a gray ribbon embossed with dark red wax stamp seals and black calligraphy. I also like “The Empire Needs Men!” with its fierce lion imagery. The bookish among us will no doubt be swayed by the German WWI poster depicting a soldier reading a book.
The bidding is open and culminates in a live auction on June 6 at 11:00.
What is your role at your institution?
I am the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts at the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin. Although the title of this endowed position associates me specifically with the well-known Pforzheimer Collection of English Literature, 1475–1700, I am more broadly responsible for all of the Center’s pre-1700 holdings. They run the gamut from cuneiform tablets to papyrus fragments, Ethiopian codices, and strong collections of European manuscripts and printed books: Chaucer manuscripts, a Gutenberg Bible, Shakespeare Folios, &c. When I write that I am “responsible for” these collections, I mean that it is my job to connect them with a broad range of audiences—traditional researchers, students, other interested publics—while at the same time working to ensure their preservation for future generations. The usual curatorial combo. I’m also on the books as a lecturer in the Department of English, a position I’ve so far used to serve on a dissertation committee and lead a couple of conference courses with graduate students. It’s nice to be able to maintain an official foothold in what has long been my home discipline.
How did you get started in special collections?
I’ve always been fascinated by things. When I was little, that meant having an obsession with the dinosaur skeleton in The Berenstain Bears and the Missing Dinosaur Bone, repeatedly pouring over the discussion of canopic jars in Aliki’s Mummies Made in Egypt, and collecting: He-Man figures, baseball cards (I liked the cards more than the sport), keychains, whatever. Once I got to high school, I got deep into computers and the early internet, and, well, started collecting old computers. I then worked as a network and systems engineer at the end of the first dot-com boom and started out as a biochem major in college, after the bust. For better or worse, I quickly got sick of lab work and pivoted to rather different types of nerdery: film studies and the history of philosophy. When I made this move, I did so under the assumption that I’d take up IT work again after graduating, intending my deep dive in the humanities to be solely for edification’s sake. Hah.
The time I spent analyzing noir and horror movies at Ohio State was mostly toward an English major with a concentration in film, and the more general requirements of that major meant I had to read some canonical literature. At one point, I begrudgingly enrolled in a Shakespeare course, and the visiting professor who taught it—Alice Dailey, who is now at Villanova—was in the middle of a research project that focused, in part, on John Foxe’s Actes and monuments (aka The Book of Martyrs). When she introduced our class to it, the gory woodcuts and detailed descriptions of executions melted my brain, as did the fact that the earliest editions of Foxe were published as large, often multi-volume, folios. It was when confronted with the book as a book, first in pictures and then during an intimidating visit to OSU’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, that I became seriously interested in the media that transmit knowledge and culture. The imposing 16th-century tomes prompted me to ask, for the first time, some of the most basic questions of bibliography and book history: Who made the books people read and how did they make them? Who invested in their production, and who was in a position to buy and read them once they had been made?
Minus a detour as a bike messenger and another into the hellscape of tech startups, it has been pretty much been all ye olde books all of the time for me since then. I started collecting 16th- and 17th-century imprints with the tech money I was earning and then went back to Ohio State for a funded M.A. program where I learned what grad school was—when I started, I didn’t know anyone aside from my professors that had done an advanced degree in the humanities—and thought more about the books of the English Reformation. After those two years, I finally left Ohio to work on a Ph.D. with David Scott Kastan at Yale and started selling antiquarian books to support my collecting habit. Bookselling taught me a ton, though it did create a possible conflict of interest that meant I didn’t end up working very long at Beinecke Library as a curatorial assistant. Fortunately, Kastan and Kathryn James, the Beinecke’s Osborn Curator, agreed in 2012 to collaborate with me to start the Yale Program in the History of the Book, which is still running. Around that time, I also got really into early modern bookbinding practices and began to move away from studying godly books toward an effort to understand why English publishers invested in so many damn plays. In 2014, I was awarded a position in the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship of Scholars in Critical Bibliography and took my first class at Rare Book School in Charlottesville.
From Fall 2015 to Spring 2017, I was on the tenure-track at Trinity University in San Antonio teaching Shakespeare and continuing my research on English playbooks. It was a great gig, but when the Pforzheimer position opened up at the Ransom Center, I knew I had to go for it. By that time, it had become clear to me that I am more passionate about books—about the economic and labor histories behind them—than I am about literature, as such. That said, and as I always tell humanities grad students when I’m brought in to talk to them as an “alt-ac” guy, a curatorial job is one that I had started preparing for in a deliberate way by the time I arrived at Yale. It was definitely not an afterthought.
Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?
I tend to get most excited by books that remain in early bindings or have their original pamphlet-style stitching intact—it’s something of a joke that I’m the stab-stitching guy—but more recently I’ve been banging the drum and arguing that we need to attend to later bindings and repairs if we want to understand how and why we’ve come to value old books in the ways we do today. So, in the spirit of appreciating all types of book use, there’s a copy of the 1570 English-language edition of Euclid’s The elements of geometrie that’s pretty wild. Naturally, it’s at the Ransom Center.
At the level of the edition, this book is not easy to beat: it was printed and published by John Daye, the London stationer also responsible for Foxe’s Actes and monuments; translated by Henry Billingsley, who later became Lord Mayor of London; and edited by the polymath, John Dee, whose “Mathematicall praeface” and supplementary material throughout are impressive. Dee was probably also the one who encouraged Daye to include the folding pyramids and diagrams the book is probably known for best. If I’m remembering correctly, all of these remain intact in the Center’s copy, and there’s a lot else to love that’s specific to it, too. On the title-page, an “H. G.” has declared themselves the volume’s “posessor” in a clean italic hand, stating further that they paid 22 shillings for it. Another early hand has then added, “Butt [the book] is now worth 30s”—at least I think it’s an “s” for shillings—suggesting that this Euclid was already a collectible book in the 17th century. Inside, the text includes extensive manuscript annotations in Arabic, Greek, and Latin. (Someone, please come and study these annotations.)
And then there’s the Euclid’s more recent provenance. It came to the Ransom Center in the 1960s in a history of science collection put together by a proper scientist, Herbert McLean Evans. (Among other achievements, Evans helped discover Human Growth Hormone and vitamin E.) Then, around 1990, the book was one of many stolen as part of an inside job. Although the ostensible culprit, Mimi Meyer, had been kicked out of the Center in 1992 under suspicion of theft, no pilfered books were located until 2001 and none were returned until 2004, after the FBI’s investigation had concluded and Meyer pled guilty. All said, the Center got around 300 of its books back, including this Euclid. Although the inscription and annotations I’ve described made the book’s leaves pretty distinctive, the thief nonetheless decided to strip the book of its binding and rebound it, unceremoniously, in grey fabric. While plain cloth on a 16th-century book would usually signal that it was valued more as a reading text than a historical artifact, in this case, where the binding was meant as a disguise, it tells us much the opposite.
What do you personally collect?
I have a reasonably substantial collection of 16th- and 17th-century books, mostly English ones. I started out with an orphaned first volume of the 1583 edition of Actes and monuments and other books that develop or make use of Protestant interpretations of the Book of Revelation. As I got more into bookbinding and the nitty-gritty of analytical bibliography, I started collecting more for material features than content. Predictably, I’m into stitched pamphlets and books in down-market bindings, but I also really like editions of mass-produced books like psalters and New Testaments that challenge some of bibliography’s basic categories. Now that I’m responsible for collecting on behalf of an institution, my book collecting has slowed way down.
But, I’m kinda nuts when it comes to VHS. As anyone who knows me well will attest, I can go on and on about the changes that VHS, Betamax, and various forgotten video formats brought about in the ways people viewed, understood, and made motion pictures. I started collecting tapes in college, stopped for a good chunk of grad school, and got back into it in the last several years. You can tell I come to VHS as a bibliographer by the fact that I like having multiple copies of the “same” release that show differences in packaging, labels, cassette stock, previews, and other content. Like most VHS collectors today, I’m also into genre movies that were made specifically for release on home video formats, especially ones that were shot on video rather than film. Most of my collection is stored on a set of shelves that have a thick shade over them to prevent fading, but there’s one I keep in my rare book cabinet: a copy of African-American filmmaker Chester Novell Turner’s 1987 masterpiece, Tales from the QuadeaD Zone. I purchased it from a collector who got it directly from the original Oklahoma video store Turner sold it to when he was driving around the country peddling copies of both it and his first movie, Black Devil Doll from Hell.
What do you like to do outside of work?
As my VHS collecting hints, I watch a lot of movies—both high- and (very) low-brow stuff. I’ve also been trying to make more time to listen to newer punk bands, and I look forward to being able to go to shows again.
With a more flexible schedule while working at home during the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve been running a lot. I used to be a big cyclist, but a couple of nasty head injuries have mostly pushed my exercise out of traffic and onto the sidewalk.
What excites you about special collections librarianship?
Almost everything—even most of the emails. In particular, though, I like the importance my institution places on communicating with the general public. It’s a great privilege to be able to write and speak to so many different audiences about early books and manuscripts, and I really enjoy the challenge of doing so in ways that are simultaneously accessible and rigorous. I try, always, to honor people’s attention by offering at least a little something that’ll test their assumptions, encourage them to think twice.
Thoughts on the future of special collections librarianship?
I won’t repeat what others have written in this space about the importance of bringing more diverse voices and collections into our institutions, because, well, they’ve done it better than I could.
What I will offer here is a somewhat different word of encouragement to administrators at special collections libraries: you can only benefit from working to define your institution’s identity as much by the expertise of your staff—staff at all levels—as by your collections. It’s true, of course, that libraries exist to facilitate discovery by those who visit and access materials in reading rooms, classrooms, galleries, and online, and in that sense collections have to be central. It’s also true, though, that bringing people in depends on the interpretive work that staff do every day, and I think one of the best ways for an institution to distinguish itself is for it to speak loudly and with a distinctive set of institutional voices. A number of places have been doing this well in recent years, and I think a healthy future for special collections libraries will depend, in part, on there being more of it.
Any unusual or interesting collections at your library you'd like to draw our attention to?
An envelope containing the nipple hair of Henry Nelson Coleridge, collected by his wife, Sara, in 1843—the year he died. Sara was Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s daughter.
Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?
Sadly, our galleries are closed for the obvious reason, but we have high hopes that we’ll be able to reopen our current exhibition, Gabriel García Márquez: The Making of a Global Writer, in coming months. Assuming we are able to resume in-person visits, the current plan is to extend the show until the beginning of January 2021. In the meantime, you can see some of it online.
Last week Christie’s announced the forthcoming sale of the first newspaper printing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” as published in the Baltimore Patriot and Evening Advertiser on September 20, 1814, under its original title, “The Defence of Fort M’Henry,” just days after Francis Scott Key completed the verses. It is, according to Christie’s, one of only three known copies, and this is the first time a copy has ever appeared at auction. The consignor, the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, confirmed that it owns another one of the extant copies, making this a duplicate in its collection. By the time the online bidding closes on June 18, the item is estimated to reach $300,000-500,000, which will “benefit the collections fund” of the AAS.
For those who need a reminder, America’s national anthem had its humble beginnings aboard a British naval ship where Francis Scott Key, a 35-year-old lawyer from Maryland who was negotiating the release of a prisoner, had a front-row seat to the attack on Baltimore. It was thought to be a lost cause — Washington, D.C., had already been sacked and burned. But when the smoke cleared on the morning of September 14 after a 27-hour bombardment, Key spotted the American flag still aloft, inspiring his famous lyrics set to a popular English drinking song. It was printed and circulated via broadside and in the Baltimore Patriot, and, within months, could be found in periodicals everywhere under its new name, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Congress proclaimed it the national anthem in 1931.
Peter Klarnet, senior specialist in books & manuscripts at Christie’s, commented in a press release: “The 20 September issue of the Baltimore Patriot is significant not only because it bears the first appearance of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ in a newspaper, but it also offers a window into the world in which it was written — chronicling the political convulsions of a nation that was bitterly divided over the War of 1812. Indeed, Francis Scott Key was an opponent of the conflict, but despite his misgivings on the wisdom of going to war with the most powerful nation on earth at the time, he would stand with the raw militia that vainly attempted to defend Washington in August, and would celebrate the miraculous victory at Baltimore with what would become the young nation’s official anthem.”
Here are the upcoming auctions I'll be watching:
Sotheby's Churchill in Charge sale ends on Wednesday, May 20. The 100 lots include a print from around 1951 of Yousuf Karsh's December 30, 1941 iconic photograph of a scowling Churchill ($20,000–26,000); a 1925 photograph featuring both Churchill and the future Edward VIII, and signed by both ($18,000–24,000); and a set of Churchill's War Speeches, with the first volume inscribed and dated February 18, 1941.
On Thursday, May 21, Forum Auctions will sell Books and Works on Paper, in 201 lots.
Also ending on Thursday, PBA Galleries' sale of Americana from the George M. Steinmetz Collection – Literature – Miscellaneous Books. There are 301 lots up for grabs in this entirely no-reserve sale. Much of interest to the Californiana collector.
Books and Manuscripts: A Spring Miscellany at Sotheby's also ends on May 21. The 190 lots include David Burr's 1833 engraved pocket map of Texas, with an additional manuscript map on the verso ($70,000–100,000). A copy of Prince Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied's Voyage Dans l'Intérieur De l'Amérique Du Nord Executé Pendant les Années 1832, 1833 et 1834, with the atlas of illustrations by Karl Bodmer, is estimated at $60,000–90,000. A 1781 Vienna impression of the 1515 Dürer/Stabius world map could sell for $50,000–70,000.
At Christie's Paris on Wednesday, May 27, Livres Rares et Manuscrits, in 182 lots. André Gide's 1947 Nobel Prize medal is expected to lead the sale, estimated at €120,000–180,000. A dedication copy of Louis Duret's edition of Hippocrates (Paris, 1588) with the arms of Henry III on the binding—and later owned by de Thou—rates an estimate of €40,000–60,000, while a large-paper copy of the 1755–59 Desaint & Saillant edition of La Fontaine's Fables could fetch €40,000–50,000.
On May 27–28 at Dominic Winter Auctioneers Printed Books, Maps & Autographs at Dominic Winter Auctioneers, in 876 lots. A first edition of Darwin's Origin is estimated at £15,000–25,000, and an 1879 Darwin letter to his cousin Reginald Darwin about a proposed translation of Ernst Krause's sketch of Erasmus Darwin could sell for £10,000–12,000.
PBA Galleries will sell Art & Archaeology of Asia – Travel & Exploration – Cartography on Thursday, May 28. The 319 lots include several Aurel Stein publications, including Serindia ($15,000–25,000); The Thousand Buddhas ($10,000–15,000); and Innermost Asia ($10,000–15,000). The Bridgewater Library copy of Adam Olearius' The Voyages & Travels of the Ambassadors sent by Frederick Duke of Holstein, to the Great Duke of Muscovy, and the King of Persia (1662) is estimated at $8,000–12,000.
Freeman's holds two sales on May 28: The Martin Magovsky Collection of Children's Books and Books & Manuscripts. The first comprises 156 lots, of which a copy of Matt de la Peña's Last Stop on Market Street (2015), signed by Peña and by illustrator Christian Robinson, rates the top estimate at $3,000–5,000. A first edition of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH could sell for $1,000–1,500. There are 217 lots in the second sale, including a first octavo edition of Audubon's Birds of America ($20,000–30,000); two plates from the first edition each rate the same estimate.
Headlining an auction to be held in Beverly Hills and online next month is a previously unrecorded “Paris Journal” written by Jim Morrison, the live-hard-die-young front man of The Doors.
Previously, two Paris notebooks, one spiral-bound and one black composition-style, had been known, and have traded hands fairly recently, the spiral selling for $140,000 in 2007, and the composition for $200,000 in 2013 — the latter did not, however, sell when it returned to auction at Sotheby’s in 2016. Like the others, this new green-tinged composition notebook — with the words “Paris Journal” scrawled across its cover — is filled with the rock star’s thoughts and poems, written, so the legend goes, in the weeks and months before his death in Paris at the age of 27 on July 3, 1971.
The writing begins on page one with the words "so much forgotten already/ so much forgotten/ so much to forget,” and from there, turns provocative over the following fourteen double-sided pages. The notebook derives from the well-known “127 Fascination” box, an archive of Morrison manuscripts saved after his death by girlfriend Pamela Courson, which after her death in 1974, became the center of a wild story involving a taxi driver, drug dealers, and book publishers. According to Julien’s Auctions, this notebook was sold and remained until now in the private collection of Pamela Ashley, who, according to RecordMecca, “had the finest Morrison collection in the world.” It is now headed to public auction for the first time, estimated at $80,000-100,000.
Other Morrison-related material on offer at Julien’s next month includes an original poem on yellow paper handwritten by Morrison titled “Ode to LA While Thinking of Brian Jones, Deceased,” estimated at $1,000-2,000; a rare sepia oversized photograph of Morrison with a snake writhing in his hair, captured by Morrison’s friend Alain Ronay at California State University on December 1, 1967, estimated at $2,000-3,000; and a signed first edition book of his poetry, The New Creatures, self-published by Morrison in the spring of 1969 and one of only 100 copies printed, estimated at $5,000-7,000.
Yes, the Lizard King's literary legacy lives on. Just six months ago GQ surveyed “Six Jim Morrison poems that affirmed his literary genius.” And at auction, his poetry has attracted major attention in recent years. On Just Collecting's list of the ten most valuable pieces of Morrison memorabilia are several poems: his handwritten “Anatomy of Rock” sold for $20,000 in 2012, and before that, in 2006, “Fear” realized $22,800 and “American Night” $50,400.
In another pandemic-era example that makes a compelling case for broadband to one day be reclassified as a utility, the Boston Athenæum has reformatted its spring and early summer in-person events for a stay-at-home audience. A full slate of talks originally intended to be held at the Athenæum's Edward Clarke Cabot-designed enclave at 10 1/2 Beacon Street have migrated online, where they're open to the public and free of charge.
Pre-pandemic, Athenæum staff were already considering ways to expand its reach. According to John Buchtel, curator of rare books and head of special collections, the forced physical closures allowed the library to wholeheartedly embrace the digital transition. "We were delighted to be able to pivot from in-person to online presentations," he said.
And pivot they have: from now until mid-June, the Athenæum is offering a range of online programs, from a conversation with the chief conservator about caring for the library's bibliographic treasures to a live reading by Caldecott winner Christopher Bing of Henry Longfellow's "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere." Most tantalizing, perhaps, is the series of talks dubbed "Curator's Choice," which highlight the library's various holdings. Buchtel said that these talks are a natural segue for the Athenæum's curators to share their knowledge with the public. "Having finished putting a new curatorial team in place shortly before cultural institutions had to shut down, we were already thinking about ways to expand our offerings that focus on our fascination with various aspects of material and visual culture," he explained.
So far, four virtual lectures are on tap: assistant curator Christina Michelon's examination of Little Nell, a sculpture by Robert Ball Hughes depicting a character in Dickens's Old Curiosity Shop on May 19; a discussion of artist Florine Stettheimer's still life, The White Curtains, led by assistant curator Ginny Badgett on May 26; John Buchtel's leafy survey of the Athenæum's rare dendrological holdings on June 2; and Theo Tyson curates (Anti)SUFFRAGE, presenting thirteen rare books, broadsides, paintings, photographs, and other items in celebration and commemoration of PRIDE month on June 9. The full list of events and how to register may be found on the Athenæum website.
The Athenæum's shift to online programming has been met with strong public response, and Buchtel envisions a post-Covid future for the institution that will incorporate the best of the digital and physical realms. "While we all believe strongly that images on a screen never fully substitute for experiencing physical books and artwork in person, we have been very pleased with the response to our new series," said Buchtel. "We plan to continue to explore innovative ways to provide virtual points of entry to our collections even after we are able to welcome visitors back into the Athenæum."
For internauts interested in seeing a sample of these presentations, the Athenæum kindly provided Fine Books with the complete video of Buchtel's April 27 talk on artist Leslie Gerry's Venice Reflections.