February 2011 | Rebecca Rego Barry

Guest Blog: Librarians, Show Us Your Books

Guest Blog by FB&C reader, Martin J. Murphy of Richmond, Virginia

I was prompted to write this little appeal by a photograph that I came upon of the interior of the Annmary Brown Memorial in Providence, Rhode Island, taken sometime in the early part of the twentieth century. The Memorial was built in 1905 by General Rush Hawkins in memory of his wife and to house his collection of incunabula. The photograph [see it here] shows enormous book and display cases containing hundreds of fifteenth-century books, all lying open to reveal their magnificent printed and illuminated pages. The visual effect is stunning and prompted Alfred Pollard of the British Museum to refer to the Memorial as one of the great bookrooms of the world.

Those rooms must have been a wonderful place for a bibliophile to visit. When the librarian/curator/scholar Margaret Bingham Stillwell wrote an essay about the library in 1940, she titled it The Annmary Brown Memorial - a Booklover's Shrine. In that essay, she writes: "When you enter the Annmary Brown Memorial you step literally into a bookroom of the fifteenth century. Displayed open on slanting shelves are several hundred books issued soon after the invention of printing. You might expect them to be primitive in design and clumsily made. But in reality there is a sense of perfection in them, a certain finesse that seems hardly compatible with the fact that they were among the first printed books known to the Western world."

The use of the word "bookroom" rather than "library" in this context is telling. The latter is a rationalized repository of printed material; the former is a romanticized chapel consecrated to the display and appreciation of beautiful and important books.

When the Memorial came under the jurisdiction of the Brown University library system in 1948, the books were promptly rearranged into modern library storage format. That was the case when I would visit there as an undergraduate in the early 1970s, when the great bookcases presented only rows of drab, featureless spines instead of the magnificent printed pages for which fifteenth century books are so justly renowned. It became even grimmer when the University moved all of the incunabula out of the Memorial and into the John Hay Library, where they disappeared into a room that few people would ever even guess to exist, much less find on their own.

The rationale offered for the Memorial's transformation from a gallery of art to a collection of entries in a card catalog was predictably pragmatic, citing security and preservation while overlooking the fact that the books had already survived 500 years without that kind of over-protective mothering. This seems to me to be an all too familiar story of how beautiful books slowly, inexorably, migrate from open view into the forgotten netherworld of the book graveyard, catalogued and stored as if they were just another copy of Great Expectations.

At the risk of stepping on the toes of a few medievalists, I will say that the principal appeal of fifteenth century books to bibliophiles today is not their textual content (most of which is either completely forgettable medieval theology or commonly known classics) but the appearance of the print, illuminations, rubrication, and illustrations on the pages. This was an era of wonderfully varied and idiosyncratic type design, page layout, and other visual features, before standardization got its grip on the printing arts.  Even the paper and ink are striking. Nothing can communicate this more effectively than to see dozens of examples ranged side by side.  Again, in the words of Miss Stillwell: "Their first impression is of enduring strength, a strange virility of type-design, of paper, ink, and in many instances of contemporary leather stretched taut over covers of hand-hewn wood..." Simply put, books like these are beautiful to look at and should be treated as art, not as mere packages of information to be summoned from the stacks by the (very) occasional scholar. This is particularly true of collections such as that of Rush Hawkins, which was conceived from the outset as a history of printing and typography rather than as a scholarly library. Margaret Bingham Stillwell clearly understood the real purpose and value of the collection and the magnificent display over which she presided was a tribute to her appreciation.

I've visited a lot of libraries and special collections but have never seen a display even remotely like the Annmary Brown bookroom as it appeared in those early days. Why is that? What would it be like to walk into a gallery of old master paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and find all but one turned face to the wall, in the interests of security and preservation?  Why should a library keep all but a small handful of its most beautiful books hidden away in locked stacks? Is it really security and safety,or a lack of adequate display space, or is it a fundamentally different mindset of the librarian?

I was surprised to discover recently that the Library of Virginia - a state institution focused on the history of Virginia - owns copies of the Nuremburg Chronicle and the 1476 Jenson Pliny, safely stored away. Those are two of the typographical masterpieces of the fifteenth century.   Given the official charter of the Library of Virginia, one would never expect to find them there.   Consequently, I suspect I might be one of only a handful of people outside the staff of the Library to have looked at those books in the last several decades. What else might be in there?

Not all books are created equal. Most are perfectly well served by efficient and secure storage in the stacks of a library - catalogued, shelved, and then delivered up only when a reader summons them with a call slip. The special ones, though, should not be handled in the same way. They mustn't be allowed to disappear into hidden vaults, perhaps never to be seen again. It is for these books that one wants a curator that thinks of his or her domain not as a library, but as a museum. So please, librarians and curators of special collections, show us your books.

Thanks to Martin for sharing this essay with us. Any other readers have a secret bookish essay they'd like to share? Send to rebecca@finebooksmagazine.com.