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Special Report

‘Plain But Good’

R. R. Donnelley’s annual addition to the modest Lakeside Classics series is a boon for American history collectors By Karen EdwardsKaren Edwards has been a freelance writer for Antique Week, Early American Life, Woman’s Day, Health, Eating Well, and Entrepreneur.

Every December Steve Gargani, a pressroom manager for printing giant R. R. Donnelley, would look forward to the day a supervisor would visit employees with paychecks and the company holiday gift. The present was always the same—a beautifully printed and bound book, highlighting an individual experience in American history. Known as the Lakeside Classics, those company gift books have become one of the longest running book series in American publishing history. And, needless to say, the books have become highly collectible. “I worked for Donnelley for eighteen years,” said Gargani, which means he had amassed eighteen volumes of Lakeside Classics before leaving the company. Yet the books only whetted his appetite for more. Gargani continued to search for and buy the books, and now he buys and sells the series, as well as other Donnelley-published books, from his Illinois-based online store, lakesideclassicbooks.com.

The Lakeside Classics series, however, began long before Gargani joined R. R. Donnelley.

Early photograph of Thomas E. Donnelly, founder of the series, of whom this was written in the 1952 Lakeside Classic, My Life on the Plains by General George A. Custer: “Whatever appreciation and acceptance the recipients of these books have generously voiced over the years is due Mr. Thomas E. Donnelley, the present Honorary Chairman of the Board of this Company. Not only was it his idea to publish them, but he personally selected the subject matter for the first 45 volumes and wrote the Publishers’ Preface for all but one of these.” Courtesy of R. R. Donnelly.
Photograph of the R. R. Donnelley building, circa 1920. This was the company headquarters when T. E. Donnelley started the Lakeside Classics. Courtesy of R. R. Donnelly.
In front of the same building from the same time period is a young man who had begun working there as an apprentice in 1908. Courtesy of R. R. Donnelly.

Thomas E. Donnelley, the son of the company’s founder, Richard R. Donnelley, began the series in 1903. His intent in launching the Lakeside Classics can be found in the introduction to the first book in the series, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, where he wrote: “If, in a modest way this volume conveys the idea that machine-made books are not a crime against art, and that books may be plain but good, and good though not costly, its mission has been accomplished.” Doug Fitzgerald, executive vice president of communications for R. R. Donnelley, put it like this: “The Classics were begun as a means of demonstrating that books produced with the latest techniques are no affront to art and craftsmanship, and they can be beautiful and enduring. For more than a century, R. R. Donnelley employees have brought that premise to life through the Lakeside Classics and in the titles that we produce for our customers.”

At first the series specialized in speeches and writings of noted Americans. In 1911, however, the publication of The Autobiography of Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard changed the series’ focus. “Since 1911, the Lakeside Classics volumes have been public domain, first-person narratives of American history,” explained Fitzgerald. Throughout the 1980s, Fitzgerald continued, volumes emphasized history on the North American continent, including the Civil War, the American Old West, early exploration, and everyday frontier life. As R. R. Donnelley expanded internationally, however, more recent texts illustrate the American experience beyond the country’s borders. At present, Fitzgerald said, the company has locations in fourteen different time zones around the world. Titles chosen for the Lakeside Classics series now reflect the company’s new global footprint—for example, 2004’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African.

“Though there have been periods during which a single individual edited many copies of the series, the process of considering what text would fit the criteria (for the Classics) has remained fundamentally constant,” Fitzgerald said.

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