Monday, September 13, 2010

Boxes Forgotten, Boxes Discovered: Some Good News from Providence!

Providence, RI - mid 19th century

Booksellers have far more “rules of thumb” about the book world in general than they have thumbs.  One rule is “Always look at the bottom shelves first when scouting another dealer’s stock; after all, nobody likes to bend down, so the best stuff on the bottom shelves often goes unnoticed.”

Another rule is “If you find a book you believe is a hidden treasure or diamond in the rough, buy it.  Don’t quibble about price, especially if it’s at all close to what you think it should cost. You’ll likely never see it again if you don’t buy it on the spot.”  In fact, most experienced book dealers, like fishermen, have long, involved stories about all the great books that got away.

Nobody ever complains about the books they’ve bought – just the ones that they “coulda, shoulda” bought and didn’t.

The next rule of thumb is the bane of bookseller’s spouses. Simply put, here’s the rule: “Books worth owning like to live on shelves. Or in stacks. Stacks of books in the living room. Stacks of books in the bedroom. Stacks of books in the dining room. It’s a proven fact that Books Die in Boxes. Books thrive and flourish in stacks where people can see them.”

So, booksellers know from years of experience that if you buy a special book/pamphlet/manuscript and bring it home to spend more time with it (i.e. you want to read it, take notes, etc.), don’t EVER put it in a box with a lid. Every experienced bookseller knows that an uncatalogued book in a box is a book lost. You might as well keep it in a storage locker in Ulan Bator, because in a week or so, new shiny objects (in the form of yet more books) will command your attention and the book that was once the desired object of your affection will have slipped into the dark recesses of memory’s basement.

Cats have greater attention spans than many booksellers.

The point of all this is not to tell you about the quirky ways of bookselling, but rather about human nature and storing things of importance. Most of us play bit parts in that ongoing drama of life known as Short Attention Span Theatre.  After all, that’s why the old adage “out of sight, out of mind” has hung around so long.  That’s why libraries have catalogs and why archives inventory and process collections, creating detailed finding aids in the process.

Even professionals (librarians, archivists, booksellers) slip up from time to time.  Things get put in boxes, uncatalogued and uninventoried, always with the best of intentions. When that happens, things get lost, sometimes for a very, very, very long time.  Fortunately, however, they can also get re-discovered...sometimes.

Recently, while making preparations for the possible disastrous effects of Hurricane Earl, municipal archivists in the city of Providence, Rhode Island came across some boxes in the basement of City Hall.  The forlorn, damp-stained boxes contained things that had been around for a very, very long time – things that had escaped the notice of the city archivists.

What sort of things? Original manuscript records. City council meeting minutes that date back to just after the Revolutionary War. Thousands of pages, including a manuscript recording the votes of citizens on whether to approve the 1831 city charter.

More is yet to be discovered, as city archivists pore over the find, foldering and cataloguing the records for researchers’ use. This is indeed good news, especially for family historians with Rhode Island roots.

You can actually see some of the newly-found records and listen to Providence city archivist Paul Campbell discuss the find on this short WHDH-TV clip here.

And ... to my friends who like to think that everything in New England has already been discovered and is all on the Internet ... two words...


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