1888_Dorsey 249.18 - Davies Project at Princeton University

Times, July 29, 1888. William H. Dorsey Scrapbook Collection 249.18.
Library Ideas.
The only safe rule for a great library is to acquire everything.
The value of the unimportant.
Some of the treasures of the Philadelphia library that illustrate the value of universal
A library used to be a mob of books; now it is a disciplined army. It has a new
improved style of Cutter catalogue, a Dui decimal classification and other inventions
which only a Boston librarian can properly expound. Therefore it is chiefly some lighter
aspects of library affairs which are here to be presented. It may, however, be said, for the
benefit of anyone fired with enthusiasm by what he may here read, that the historical and
technical sides of the question may in slight degree be found in the twelve hundred pages
of the report of the Bureau of Education in 1876 on libraries.
Taking library questions in their order, the acquisition of books comes first. The
principles governing this might seem to be simple, but in fact the light of a new idea is
only now drawing on this primary mater and that is, “acquire everything. Everything, too,
valuable or valueless to be preserved elsewhere should be preserved in a library.” The
very fact that a thing is too common or unimportant for present care is likely to give it
some future value. Those old library heroes, who could not spell their names without a
Latin termination, Magliabecchi, Mezzofanti, Lessing, Casaubon, et al., knew more than
most of their late successors, but, alas for us! They did not know that the ephemera an
age ago are its earmarks. They would have held their folios sullied by the companionship
of the contemporary equivalent of Jayne’s Almanac, or an advertising circular of Mr.
Wanamaker, or the report of the Society for Teaching Friendless Horses to Feed, or the
last new penny song. And the consequence is that for a very large portion of their
material historians have been indebted to collections made by private exertion.
This fact, and the value of such collections, systematically made, may be
illustrated by two somewhat kindred collections, contained in the Library Company of
Philadelphia. The former of these was made in the latter part of the eighteenth century by
Pierre Du Simitiere, a painter, known for his portraits of Washington, Morris and other
Revolutionary worthies. Among its hundreds of pamphlets, manuscripts, etc., of preRevolutionary and revolutionary matter may be noticed, as giving an idea of the character
of the whole, a volume of papers relating to the stamp act, one of the bills of mortality
from about 1750 to the Revolution and one of the treaties with the Indians. Perhaps
nothing can bring up more vividly the changes of one hundred years—not much more
than a good lifetime—than this last. To read the treaties and conferences with savages at
Easton or Lancaster, or one of the massacres and riots of the Paxton men, and to think
that the war whoops of Indian scouting parties could be heard not far from Philadelphia
itself seems queer enough, now that the very names of the tribes are forgotten. Here, for
instance, is the “minutes of conferences at a meeting with Teedyuscung, king of the
Delawares, who is empowered by the Lenape, Wename, Munsey, Mawhikkons,” etc., etc.
Who has ever heard of the Wename and the rest? But to our grandfathers they were of
importance enough to be propitiated with several score women’s thimbles, mirrors and
other valuable articles. Of Teedyuscung, indeed, there existed a memorial until a year or
so ago, in the shape of a station so named on the Chestnut Hill Railroad. But being a
name racy of the soil this has naturally, lately been dropped in favor of a meaningless
Anglicism. Another interesting volume of this collection is lettered “Publications of the
Enemy,” and contains proclamations of Sir William Howe during the time the British
held Philadelphia and kindred matter. In others may be seen calls to non-important
meetings, caricatures and whatnot, the very form and impression of the time.
The other collection is of our own era and is even more miscellaneous in character,
being rich in portraits, local matter relating to Philadelphia, but particularly valuable in a
mass of matter relating to the civil war. It is safe to say that the generation which has
grown up since that struggle no formal history can give insight and feeling understanding
of the moods of that time as the inspection of such a collection as this. For here is a
chronicle of the time in the very feelings of the time. There it is from the beginning in
letter heads, with their pictures and legends, ballads, portraits, broadsides, etc. from the
bombardment of Sumter, the march through Baltimore and the death of Ellsworth to the
assassination of Lincoln (on which the collection contains several hundred sermons alone)
all is seen with the heat and freshness and detail of the time. The whole is a tragedy, but
some of the details are comic, as in the street posters calling for recruits. The earlier ones
of the series deal largely in “Highfalutin;” it is for glory, for patriotism that they call on
their countrymen to come forward. The later ones dwell upon the bounty. By the period
of the war some people were awakening to the propriety of collecting, and some of the
rag-cellars and paper factories, where cartloads of documents from Southern Court
Houses and other places somehow found their way, were scenes of lively competition.
One astute institution in this city stole a march on rivals by electing a leading ragman a
member. Very proud he was the distinction, and illuminated several meetings with a
diamond brooch covering the expansive bosom of a red silk shirt. He gave the emissaries
of that institution a back cellar, where they examined freshly arrived loads and listened
tot heir outwitted enemies picking over their leavings in the front room.
The moral of all this is that everyone who has nay old books, papers or pamphlets
which he doesn’t want should give them to a library instead of a paper mill or the fire,
and that every library should have a top drawer, as that institution is known to all mothers
and families, in which to deposit miscellanies of too little apparent value to catalogue.
Seventy-five dollars have been paid for a quack almanac, badly wanted for some purpose.
And the prices paid for many old books of perhaps not very much intrinsic value are—
well, Bradford’s Almanac of half a dozen vacant pages fetches over $500. it was the first
issue of the press in Pennsylvania. The Bay Psalm Book printed in 1640, in Cambridge,
fetches over $1,000, by virtue of being the first book printed in the, now, United States.
The late Henry Stevens once bought a ten thousand dollar library to get a copy of this.
While if we go back a little further we may find Mr. Quaritch, the London bookseller,
giving $20,000 for a book printed by Schaeffer, the second printer, because it is a fine
and rare specimen of early typography. That is about a thousand a year for the privilege
of owning a book! These be the things of which enthusiastic librarians dream. And Mr.
Perkins, one of the guild, has written a novel, in which the virtuous hero is rewarded by
finding a box of books, all of which are “unique” or next to it, excepting a first folio of
Shakespeare of ideal tallness and condition. For the sake of warning it should be
mentioned that the evil character, who is punished by a stroke of apoplexy, is a book
As there is no proposition but requires limitation, it may be said that perhaps only
larger general libraries should collect indiscriminately ephemera of the nature mentioned,
special libraries collecting only in their particular “wanity,” for different libraries have
different functions, and a thing to do with the seemingly popular belief that Philadelphia
city, with libraries of law, medicine and natural science surpassed by none in the country,
and with a historical society and a library of applied science standing in the first rank, is
poorly supplied with books.
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