During my doctoral study days poking around some amazingly dusty corners of the Judaica collections at various university libraries I was frequently reminded of the former lives of the books now resigned to those quiet shelves. Every time I came across an ex libris sticker or personal inscription about the former owner or author, for a moment my thoughts were distracted thinking about what that book had meant to its first owner. Who had purchased it, what journey had it made since its publication and what had its contents inspired in previous readers?
Having made my research focus Historiography – the study of the methodologies used by historians in developing history as an academic discipline, for me the question of what happened to the history books collected and owned by the historiennes I studied was as fascinating a question as “who got Einstein’s office?” might be to a Physicist. Periodically the book collections of personalities, thinkers and writers come up for auction or are offered through specialist book sellers but once these collections are dispersed something of the transmission of ideas is lost whilst something is gained by new owners.
It is interesting to know what eminent historical individuals read, to ponder what influenced them and consider what stayed on their shelves perhaps unread.
Just as insightful is the opportunity to know what books were collected or treasured by your ancestors.
Have you received a legacy of books from a close relative or ancestor?
Perhaps you have inherited a legacy of religious books? Works that tell you something about the religious devotion or faith of your ancestors. Or perhaps a collection of classic literature or significant political and philosophical works which an ancestor treasured. Maybe your ancestor bequeathed books because of their monetary value at the time. Or because they hoped they would simply be read and enjoyed by subsequent generations.
Such books tell us something about the interests and perhaps influences on our ancestors. But these artefacts in themselves also offer other insights into their former owners. For example they may include an inscription or dedication, the name and location of an owner, a date or a price? Are certain pages well thumbed, do they contain any handwritten margin notes, perhaps a bookmark or pressed flowers? Have they been rebound, do they have a current value beyond personal family significance and should you insure them and consider their material conservation and storage?
What story do these books tell you and most importantly what do they mean to you now?
Would you bequeath books to your descendants and if so what books would they be?
Hannah Gill, historytrace, 07/04/2016
Link: Dan Wyman Books, Brooklyn, NY,
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