Archives & Special Collections Goes Shopping…

Editor’s note: with the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books this weekend, we thought it’d be a great time to shed a little light upon one way that our Archives & Special Collections Department purchases rare books for our collection. This guest blog post is written by Alex Halicki, graduate student in English and A&SC intern.

The California International Antiquarian Book Fair comes to Southern California every other year and when it does, Archives and Special Collections goes shopping! This year the event was held at the Pasadena Convention Center over the weekend of February 7 -9. As the A&SC department intern, I was excited to join some of the A&SC librarians and Dr. Carla Bittel, a history professor at LMU, for an afternoon at the fair.

Cynthia Becht, the head of A&SC, and Rachel Wen-Paloutzian, the metadata librarian, swung by my apartment and picked me up at 10am.  Here they are, waving from inside the library car:

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Upon arrival we joined up with Dr. Bittel and Taz Morgan, LMU’s media archivist. Taz and I paused for a photo with “William Shakespeare” who assured us that he is only one person and that he did write all of those plays.

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The book fair is a large event with more than two hundred booksellers. The inside of the fair looked like this:

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I was surprised by how eye-catching it was. Glass display cases at each vendor’s booth were filled with items shown to best advantage. There were not only books, but manuscript items, photographs, colorful posters and fans. There were even paper toys for children, such as this one that I snapped a picture of:

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Our plan was to split up and shop in small groups, then re-group for lunch and discuss our finds. Our goal was to find items that would strengthen existing collections and/or that could be used for exhibits and class visits to A&SC. Beforehand we’d decided to focus on specific categories. I stuck with Cynthia and Taz to look for early printed books. Together we perused several volumes that are best described as “tomes” – heavy, old-fashioned books that positively emanate the fact they are from another time. One of these, a 1500 edition of The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius (a Roman historian), had metal fastenings in the shape of duck heads and a beautiful pigskin binding.

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We discussed our finds over lunch while Cynthia did some math on a notepad. Then we went back out together and made our purchases, which were four in all. One of them was the Suetonius. Here are Cynthia, Rachel, and Dr. Bittel examining the book (note what you can see of the binding, and the metal clasp sticking up by the bookseller’s hand):

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Rachel found a very finely bound volume from 1897. The cover appears to be inlaid with polished stones, although these “stones” are skillfully manipulated vellum. The book is an edition of The Song of Solomon (from the Bible) published by the Guild of Women Binders – if you thought that women weren’t involved in publishing and binding in the nineteenth century, think again! We also bought a first edition of Etchings of a Whaling Cruise by John Ross Brown, an Irish-American who went on whaling voyage in the 1840s and then wrote (and illustrated) this book about the experience.  This book was one of the sources used by Herman Melville when he wrote Moby Dick and it will be featured in our Fall 2014 Moby Dick exhibition. Finally, Dr. Bittel found a ship’s log from a mid-nineteenth century whaling vessel called the Spartan, which departed from Nantucket in 1858. The log is fascinating: its splotched, light blue pages are filled with cursive entries that are strikingly augmented with whale stamps signifying the sighting or the capture of a whale.

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The heavy and impressively bound Suetonius remained behind to be mailed to us later, but we left with the other three items wrapped up for us like this:

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From left to right, they are The Song of Solomon, Etchings of a Whaling Cruise, and the ship’s log.

I held onto the books in the car to make sure they didn’t slide around as we drove back home. I had a great time at the fair. I love it when my internship turns into a field trip, and by actually participating in the decision making and shopping I learned more about how A&SC develops its collections.