Wednesday, November 6, 2013

How a Library Knows the Holidays are Soon Upon Us

by Frank Boles

Everyone has their own way of remembering that the holidays are quickly approaching. For some, it’s the urge to bake a pumpkin pie. Others are anxiously awaiting the “Black Friday” sales papers, and planning which store to line up at for the 4:30 a.m. opening. At a library, its “catalog season.”

In the last two days, four dealer catalogs arrived. Dealers in Woodbridge, Connecticut, Providence, Rhode Island, San Francisco, California, and Yonkers, New York all have pages and pages of offerings, perfect for year-end-giving. Most dealers can be discrete about this, but one catalog includes the category, “Holiday Gifts,” because even someone who has everything probably doesn’t have a group of autographed napkins from Air Force 1 (then again do you really want the autograph of Senator Harrison Williams from New Jersey, even if he did sign an Air Force 1 napkin?) or a “biblical coin” described in Mark 12:41.

This means it’s time for us to wade through these napkins, coins, and the “extra-deluxe connoisseur’s edition” of “Autographs of the Confederacy” (one wonders if this represents examples of Robert E. Lee’s best penmanship?) to see what treasures may appear regarding Michigan and the Great Lakes. We approach the catalogs with a mix of anticipation and fear. Anticipation, because you never know what you might find. Fear, because if you do find “it” you’re going to have to figure out where to find the money to pay for “it.”

The batch of catalogs on my desk today turned out to be typical. My friends in Yonkers had little to tempt me. PBA Galleries in San Francisco was selling autographs -- not particularly promising, but autographs are often on documents, and sure enough, two Hemingway items appeared. Both were marked up, pre-print copies of publications – nothing to do with Hemingway’s years in Michigan, so unfortunately they did not come as much use to us. Just as well, since the $12,000-$18,000 estimated auction price for one of the items is not exactly chump change.

In Providence, M&S Rare Books had an item – one off but an interesting one off – a broadside publication issued in 1805 recording a speech made by the Indian Chief Red Jacket (Sagu-Ya-What-Hath) in which he firmly rejected Christianization efforts, concluding “The Great Spirit does right. He knows what is best for his children; we are satisfied. We do not wish to destroy your religion, or take it from you. We only want to enjoy our own.”

Red Jacket was an Iroquois leader of considerable importance. Although the Iroquois are not within the Library’s primary collecting focus, the Iroquois and the Chippewa interacted frequently, and sometimes violently. Red Jacket’s opinions, even on matters of religion, could have important implications for the Great Lakes, but not enough to justify spending $8,500. However, a good dealer’s catalog often includes a great deal of background information. M&S was true to this tradition, pointing to the two volume standard biography of Red Jacket, published in 1841 and an important compilation of speeches made by Native American leaders published in 1833. If Red Jacket’s $8,500 contemporary broadside was not something the Library would purchase, the biography and compilation of speeches certainly might be of interest. After checking our catalog, I learned that someone who sat in my chair years ago shared my opinion. Both the biography and the compiled speeches were in the collection. Time to move on to the last catalog.

David M. Lesser of Woodbridge is a dealer who often seems to find things of interest to the Clarke. As often happens, he listed a volume of great interest, William Dean Howells 1860 presidential campaign biography, Lives and Speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin. The $750 volume would clearly be a wonderful addition to the Library’s presidential campaign collection, but unfortunately for David, it was also one we have in the stacks. Someone else is going to have to buy it for a Christmas present.

After four catalogs reviewed, we found nothing to add to the Library. But today’s mail will be arriving shortly, and the cycle will begin again. Every day we are always looking for the “that can’t really be for sale” item that often starts a conversation that begins “how do we find that much money?” It’s part of what makes life interesting, and challenging, in a library like the Clarke.

UPDATE: We, in fact, did get another catalog in the mail after writing; this one from Martayan Lan. As with the other catalogs, there are some great finds, but nothing really falling within the scope of our collections. And just like the Hemingway items noted above, not finding anything that fits the scope of our holdings lets our collections budget breath a sigh of relief, especially when an item (Gerard and Cornelis de Jode’s Atlas [1593]) uses the phrase “price on request” to give a ballpark figure of what it will cost you.