I am told by close family members that I have an excessively, obscenely large collection of arcane reference books.
Frankly, I don’t care; that’s one of the secret pleasures of being a bookseller specializing in out-of-print material. You get first dibs on the great stuff you discover in out-of-the-way places.
On my way back from Long Island last week, I stopped at a friend’s bookshop in the mid-Hudson Valley – just in case there was something I needed. These days, when I buy for my own reference library, I need to pace myself, because space is not infinitely expandable and it’s hard to make room on the shelves for “just one or two more.”
Still, I couldn’t pass up a very nice copy of Joseph C. G. Kennedy’s Preliminary Report On The Eighth Census – 1860, published by the Government Printing Office in Washington in 1862. In addition to the usual and expected statistical tables, there’s the text – most of which Kennedy wrote himself. Sometimes, it’s a single line in these kinds of reports that can send you off on a quest for more information elsewhere. For example, on page 100, under the heading “New Domestic Animals”, Kennedy wrote, “Camels and Cashmere goats have been successfully introduced, and strong hopes are entertained of their perfect acclimation and permanent utility.”
That sent me off in search of yet more information on camels in the United States circa 1850 – 1860. Who knew about the schemes to use camels as commercial freight carriers in Utah or as draft animals on Alabama plantations? Who remembers the Secretary of War (Jefferson Davis, in fact) who promoted the US Army Camel Corps in Texas during this time period? Who knew that the ship carrying camels from Tunisia as a gift for the President of the United States also carried a piece of marble from the ruins of ancient Carthage that was to be used in the construction of the Washington Monument?
That’s why I keep adding things to the shelves. There’s just too much good stuff that I want to have at my fingertips as a ready reference.
For example, there’s my copy of the 1944 Annual Report of the American Historical Association in which appears the “Guide to the American Historical Review, 1895 – 1945.” This handy “guide” provides me with browse-able, indexed information about a wide range of nifty articles that appeared in the “Review” during its first 55 years. Things like Dallas Irvine’s July 1939 article titled “The Fate of Confederate Archives” which appeared in Volume 44. Or Albert Deutsch’s article in the April 1941 issue entitled “The Sick Poor in Colonial Times.” Both of these topics are items of interest for projects I’m currently working on and the articles are now on the “to read” list.
If I hadn't thumbed through the book, I might never have found references to those articles, neither of which would have been on my radar back in 1986 when I first bought it. My research interests constantly evolve.
Then there’s my very worn and water-stained copy of the Annual Report of the Superintendent of Common Schools of the State of New York… , published in Albany in 1845 by “Carroll and Cook, Printers To The Assembly.” Doesn’t sound like much, but the first-hand reports from the county school superintendents provide an insight into New York education and social customs in the 1840s that are hard to find anywhere else. For example, A.S. Stevens, the superintendent in Wyoming County, wrote that he was having a problem convincing the parents in his district that corporal punishment in school was not a “good thing.”
He wrote, “The moment a word is hinted against corporal punishment as a necessary means of school discipline, the better part of the community are in arms and upon you at once, as a disorganizer, attacking the good order, the long established, wholesome and necessary rules of society; and a setter-up of strange doctrines. And they, in all respects very good citizens, cling to this relic of the barbarian age, with all the tenacity that others have done to a firm belief in witchcraft, necromancy, or in the great Diana of the Ephesians.”
Other county superintendents described their school houses. Warren County’s Lemon Thomson noted that, of the 105 schools in his district only 35 had blackboards and only 21 had privies, observing that proper privies were needed “…both for the convenience of scholars and to induce them to cultivate and retain the habits of delicacy, neatness and decorum.”
Local school superintendents - despite making handsome six-figure salaries in these parts these days - tend not to write with this degree of clarity or insight, never mind the "Diana of the Ephesians" reference.
Then there are, of course, the many shelves of bibliographic references – everything from bibliographies of Bermuda and Nantucket history to references for mystery fiction, local history, genealogy, medical works, religion and the common classics on bibliographic description. For example, the 1983 International Bibliography of Historical Demography may seem obscure, but if you’ve ever heard my “Sleuthing in the Stacks” talk, you would have learned about the importance of keeping up with what’s going on in that particular scholarly world. Historical demographers use the same kinds of records as genealogists. They just study whole groups of people, rather than families and individuals. Hence, a genealogist working on a problem in England in the early 1700s may find the reference to Grace Wyatt’s 1981 article titled “Migration in South-West Lancashire: a Study of Three Parishes (1661 – 1760)” helpful, especially since the journal Local Population Studies tends not to make most genealogists’ casual reading lists.
Nearby on the shelf is John D. Gay’s superb 1971 study called The Geography of Religion in England. This one earns its keep because of its fascinating maps that present information on the distribution of various religious groups throughout England at various time periods. Need to know where the “General Baptists” and “Particular Baptists” were in the 17th century? Consult Map 25.
Wondering about the beliefs, development and distribution of the “British Israel Movement”? Consult the text on page 183. Since you asked…The British Israelites believe that they – as Anglo-Saxons – are the chosen race of God and that they are the lineal descendants of the House of Israel. Apparently it was a group particularly favored by the aristocracy in the 1920s and 1930s.
These titles, of course, just scratch the surface and take up less than one half of one three-foot shelf of the 48 shelves that are designated “reference.” Then there are the piles of books on the floor. And in boxes. And under the bed. And in the closet.
Well, anyway, you get the idea.