Dollars, Scholars

When people offer collections of books to the Book Fair, they use phrases which sound good to THEM, but which we at this end know need further exploration. We’ve gone through some of these before. “Really old books” is one, “First editions” is another. Another is “Scholar’s Library”. What the donor means is that this is a focused collection put together by someone who devoted a lifetime, or at least a retirement, to studying a particular subject. What the phrase means to US depends a lot on the scholar.

This scholar may have been a hobbyist and may have been a Pulitzer Prize winner for a book on the subject. The scholar may fall into some category in between. For Book Fair purposes, this does not matter. What matters is that they brought together a lot of books on one subject, not how they applied the knowledge they derived from the books.

And the subject doesn’t matter all that much, either. A large collection of books on guitars can be as exciting as a large collection of books about Herman Melville. (More exciting, actually, since the Newberry already has virtually every book on Herman Melville.) The concentration of books on a single subject is something we can advertise, something that lends a special flavor to this year’s Book Fair, like all those books on Asian studies. But the Asian studies collection was NOT a “Scholar’s Library”.

To Uncle Blogsy, who can be awfully picky at times, a “Scholar’s Library” is a library which has been USED. Each book has been acquired for a PURPOSE, and that purpose was not necessarily to provide Uncle Blogsy with saleable books.

Take two great collections that came in last week on the Civil War. Both collections are from scholars I happen to know about. The first scholar wrote a book I offer for sale every year, and a sequel which is much harder to find. He gave us, oh, let’s say a hundred pounds of books which reprint Civil War photographs. Such books can be massive; these are. They contain hundreds and thousands of pictures of the first heavily photographed American war.

But he was writing his own books, see, and he was looking for pictures of the people and scenes he was writing about. When he found a pertinent picture, he marked it with a sticky note, and later tore out the entire page. He did this very neatly, and he remembered which book was which, too, because he put the pages back into the right volumes. This was thoughtful: otherwise I might never have noticed that each of these 900-page tomes has ten to twenty pages torn out. (With smaller books, you can tell pages have been removed: it’s harder with something the size of an unabridged dictionary.)

Now, the other Civil War scholar was not a page-remover. He was a page ADDER. His books have flyers from the battlefield discussed, letters from the authors, schedules from the convention where he picked up the book. This bulges the book a bit, and makes it look untidy, but I can deal with it. I don’t know how I’ll keep his pages of notes from falling out during the Book Fair, but if you come early and buy them before anyone else, you’ll have them.

But he seems to be one of those people who flattens a book out on the table when he reads it, so a lot of his books which started as one volume editions are now in several volumes. A book inscribed to him by a really important scholar is broken into three bits, while others lack covers or have whole sections hanging onto the binding by a thread.

Yes, I do like scholar’s libraries: it’s fun to see all the titles the scholars have found in their subject area. And I can’t blame the scholars for using the books they bought: as I say, they weren’t thinking of us when they picked up the books.

But oh, sometimes I wonder why we don’t get more donations of books from people who can’t read.

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