Libraries, particularly those with older, historical collections, manage to accumulate remarkable things over the decades and the centuries. Whether these items are books, manuscripts, letters, diaries or actual objects in some cases, librarians, archivists and curators are honor bound to evaluate and, when appropriate, preserve them. Sometimes we preserve them even when it isn’t appropriate or useful or even sensible. Sometimes, things are just interesting.
The items I describe here range from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again. Each item, for different reasons, is interesting and worth preserving. Two of the books noted are very beautiful and one is of enormous value. One of the other books I include is the dumbest example of the printers’ craft I have ever seen. What can the publisher have been thinking? The letters, from our archives, offer fascinating and even moving glimpses into our past.
People like to think that old libraries are haunted and, in a curious way, I am inclined to agree with them. However, they are haunted not by traditional ghosts but by the obscure books of once famous, now obscure writers and by the eloquent words of our ancestors. These books and documents are shelved and boxed up in special, locked rooms or stashed away in the shadows of storage rooms.
They serve as a sobering reminder that our time and our influence here is all too brief.
American Ornithology: Or, the Natural History of Birds in the United States. Wilson, Alexander. Bradford and Inskeep. 1808-1814.
Wilson was a Scottish born ornithologist and illustrator who immigrated to North America in 1794. Once here, he travelled extensively, observing and painting birds, and began publication of his life’s work, American Ornithology, in 1808. He died a year before the publication of the final volume in 1814 (The Oxford Dictionary of American Art and Artists. Oxford University Press. 2007). The multi-volume set is illustrated with hundreds of stunning color plates. The Doherty Library’s copy, unfortunately, is missing a volume and the remaining volumes are in fragile condition. However, the illustrations preserved here are astonishingly beautiful, even after nearly 200 years. American Ornithology is both a pioneering work of science and a work of art.
Far Away and Long Ago: A History of My Early Life. Hudson, W.H. Limited Editions Club. 1943.
Hudson was yet another ornithologist, born in 1841 in Argentina to American parents. He settled in England in 1869 where he helped to establish the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. He was also a prolific author, producing dozens of works of fiction and non-fiction, including Green Mansions, (1904) his most well-known book. In 1918, he wrote Far Away and Long Ago, a memoir of his youth in Argentina (The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Oxford University Press. 2011). Hudson was prominent in his day but died in poverty and obscurity and is a mostly forgotten figure today. Oddly enough, the Limited Editions Club, sort of a Book-of-the-Month Club for people with more money than sense or, apparently, taste, put out a deluxe edition of Far Away in 1943 and that massive door-stop of a book now rests in our rare book room.
Let me say the Limited Edition volume defies belief, as it is bound in full leather, suede, rawhide and, let me stress this, fur. That’s right. This book is fur-bound. The animal, who gave all, appears to have been some kind of steer.
Well, as one bookseller put it, this is that rare item that “doubles as a book and a household pet.”
General Dictionary, History and Critical: in which a new and accurate translation of that of the celebrated Mr. Bayle. 1735. London.
Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) was a French philosopher and the author of The General Dictionary, one of the first encyclopedias of its type. Bayle was an enormously controversial and influential writer and this 10-volume English translation of his life’s work was an important publishing event. The Doherty Library’s copy is complete and in fine condition, although this edition is not particularly rare or valuable.
Our copy, however, is absolutely unique.
It is unique because buried within the pages of volume one of this oversize tome is a spent musket or pistol round, obviously fired there some time in the distant past. It is clearly not a modern bullet. The round slammed into the closed bottom edge of the volume and came to a stop about two inches into the book. And there it remains.
How? When? Why?
I like to think it was a jealous wife taking a shot at her philandering husband. It’s the romantic in me.
It will remain a very small and charming mystery.
Unknown letter – “Dear Children” and fragment, to “My Dear James,” March, 1831.
I found this letter folded inside a book in the rare book room. There were no inscriptions within the book nor was there a bookplate identifying the donor. There was a scrap of stationary addressed to “My Dear James” and signed “Your mother BB.” The two documents appear, to my untrained eye, to have been written in the same hand, although I cannot be sure. Someone, in the past, may have simply stuck the two pieces of paper inside the book. Who can tell?
Whatever the case may be, the two brief documents appear to be letters from a 19th century woman to her family, noting events from her daily life. She writes with typical 19th century grace and style. “We have not seen any of our Middletown friends since they (illegible). I heard yesterday that Brother L is sick. I expect that they will send their buggy down for me if he remains poorly—he has had all winter a severe cough similar to whooping cough.” In the fragment she writes her son, “May this precious volume so affect your heart as to lead to that preparation necessary for salvation. Your mother BB.”
And that is all we have. We know no names. We don’t know if Brother L recovered from his cough or if Mother BB’s Middletown friends sent the buggy down for her or if son James found his way to salvation.
It’s a mystery.
And finally, we have this remarkable communication from the last century, uncovered by Bob Glass, College Archivist. Letter from Mrs. Millie C. Gilbert, Matron of College Home, to the Faculty of Centre College, June 13, 1876.
In 1875-76, after the completion of Old Main, the College’s oldest building, Old Centre, was converted to living space for students. It was dubbed “College Home,” and Mrs. Millie C. Gilbert served as matron. In her letter to the faculty of the College, she complained bitterly about the behavior of the students in her charge. Apparently, some students had thrown a large piece of wood or a log through her residence window. She writes, “In reference to the wood spoken of, I will say, that it was thrown through the slightly raised window of one of my rooms at a time when Dr. Wilson said that any shock might cause my son’s death (and of this fact the students were aware) he being dangerously ill at the time, yet at dead of night, or rather about one o’clock on Sunday morning was perpetuated an act that might have proved fatal to him.”
Worse is to come, for the same students had kidnapped and then mutilated her pet cat.
She describes the scene as follows.
“Failing to obtain any trace of the kitten, I concluded they had determined to kill it, but very early in the morning, hearing a faint cry I put my head out of window and saw it coming feebly from direction of said wing.”
Mrs. Gilbert tracked a blood trail to the miscreants’ door and room.
“I found a little clotted blood, following this up led to McR’s door (standing nearly wide open) and in full view lay a tuft of fur, almost under the table, the ear and balance of fur were in the stove, and great was the trepidation of R. McRoberts on finding that I have possession of same.”
I am glad to say that the cat appears to have survived the attack. Mrs. Gilbert sent her pet to the home of a friend to recover and at least two students were punished for their behavior.
You will be astonished to learn that preserved in the Centre College archives is not only the original letter from Mrs. Gilbert, but also her evidence of the mutilation. Her kitten’s fur and the tip of its ear are also preserved along with the letter. Mrs. Gilbert’s kitten received some kind of justice and Mr. R. McRoberts lives on in infamy.
I have tried to describe in this brief article books and documents library patrons might never see or come across in their regular research or work. As noted earlier, not everything here is of great monetary value, but all of these items have value of one kind or another. They are all intriguing and offer a little mystery. And how many things, in our electronic age, offer genuine intrigue and mystery?
Of course, this is just a sample of the unusual things you might find in The Grace Doherty Library. I think we might have Bo McMillin’s beanie somewhere around here.