Message from Merrily E. Taylor, Joukowsky Family University Librarian
The line above could have been uttered by a librarian as easily as by a poet. Although we frequently think of libraries as growing by accretion, book by book, the great libraries of the world, Brown's among them, can also be viewed as "collections of collections," many of them having been built and nurtured over decades by dedicated private collectors.
This issue of Among Friends focuses on the Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection, one of the Brown University Library's premier collections and in itself an excellent example of the contribution which private collectors make to libraries and scholarship.
Private collections often begin with a whim and over the years transform their owners into experts. It is not unusual for book collecting to begin very early in life; Mrs. Brown attributed her interest in military uniforms to the martial parades she saw as a child, and H. Adrian Smith's devotion to magic originated as a schoolboy, with the usual gift "magic set." Some collectors begin collections in their college years, inspired by a fact learned in a course or by a book picked up in a secondhand store.
Whatever the impetus, the true collector soon develops the desire to acquire everything in the field of interest, the diligence to learn as much as can be known about the subject, the tenacity to pursue the elusive Title I Haven't Got Yet, and the willingness to sacrifice more routine pleasures (such as eating or going to the movies) for the opportunity to add another title to the collection.
One of the reasons private collections are frequently so wonderful is that the collector has had the time, and the dedication, to focus on one area exclusively. Libraries, building collections in a host of areas and serving a wide variety of needs, seldom have staff resources which can be assigned so narrowly.
Often collectors are assumed to be people of means, but that is not always the case. Some of the private collections which now enrich the Brown Library were built by average individuals who found their books before the titles became expensive "collectibles," or who saved up for weeks to acquire a particular, treasured item. Although some individuals view their collections as an investment for the future, it is probably safe to say that most book collections were created out of love, rather than fiscal foresightedness.
Private collections also have a delightful way of expanding beyond what may have been their original scope. Mrs. Brown's collection began with toy soldiers, expanded to uniforms, and eventually came to encompass decorations and insignia, heraldic ornaments, court and ceremonial dress, architecture, and the general history of costume. Her books and prints were purchased to document and verify the costumes of the lead soldiers, but eventually became a rich resource for the study of military history.
In a like manner, the Harris Collection of American Poetry and Plays -- an amalgam of several private collections as well as the Library's own collection building -- has long since passed beyond poetry books and plays to songsters, hymnals, sheet music, broadsides, and film and television scripts. A private collector cannot always predict where the collecting passion may lead, today or a hundred years from now!
One of the most important things about private collectors, however, is that their dedication is frequently the only thing insuring that the items that they collect will remain available for posterity. Brown's Hall-Hoag Collection of Extremist and Dissenting Literature, now consisting of nearly 100,000 items, is made up largely of materials which were never intended to last beyond a single reading. They now constitute a unique body of research material for the study of race, ethnicity, and the psychology of prejudice. Many of the books in the H. Adrian Smith Collection of Magicana were working tools for the amateur magician, nothing that a research library would have acquired at the time they were published. Yesterday's popular culture is often grist for today's scholarship, and many times the private collector is the medium for making such materials available to libraries. Private collections are not infrequently the product of decades, and their creators come to love them in a way that sometimes makes them hard to part with. The process of "separating" from a collection -- as in giving it or selling it to a library -- is sometimes said to have all the characteristics of classic bereavement
Nonetheless, the love collectors bear for their creations leads to a desire to see these collections properly housed, protected, developed, and made useful to others. Thus libraries frequently become the appropriate destination for private collections, as well as the beneficiaries of the collector's knowledge and dedication -- to the ultimate good of scholarship and the human memory.