Small Victories Make Collecting a Pleasure
By Bruce McKinney
Building a focused collection is always a matter of discipline and luck. It helps to know what you are looking for but it's impossible to know all the material that logically fits. I personally believe that only about 40% of older material is currently documented in ways that easily identify it as relevant to a collecting focus; in my case the Hudson Valley in New York State. It seems counter-intuitive that so much material would be undocumented but I'm certain this is the case. Because so much material has been well described and the reputations of many bibliographers so established, it is easy to overlook the difference between the world of books in the past and now. Today there is an emerging transparency about printed material. We are not only finding more versions of the same titles. We are also finding more titles. And we are uncovering the speeches, pamphlets, newspapers and magazines that often contained the seeds that later germinated in the books that have entered the canon of printed materials. This material is not less interesting or important. It has simply been very difficult to identify. It now looms on the horizon and AE's MatchMaker is currently the best tool for exploring this nether world.
Recently I wrote about a book I added to my Hudson Valley collection: "Memoirs of the Rev. John H. Livingston, D.D.S.T.P." that is in the AED and comes up in "Poughkeepsie" searches because the AED includes some of the records of Lathrop Harper, who in 1905 described it as "Memoirs (with account of his settlement in New York city, from September, 1770, to 1776, and Albany, Poughkeepsie, etc., to the close of the Revolutionary War), by Alex. Gunn." The copy I obtained from George S. MacManus of Bryn Mawr for $75, is in original boards and was printed by an obscure printer, William A. Mercein, in 1829. It is an interesting book that I will read one of these days. It's also one of the books that falls outside the documented 40% but is nevertheless visible because a dealer thoroughly described and the AED recorded it. In fact dealers and auction houses routinely document material that would otherwise be invisible and it's why it's important for those who are serious about printed materials to carefully follow these emerging information sources. Those who do see first hand the discovery and illumination of the dark side of the moon, a side that is and will remain for some time, larger than the illuminated portion.
Great tools aside sometimes a great find also requires some luck. Six months ago Mike Stillman, in reviewing a catalogue from western specialist Gene Baade, brought a Hudson Valley item to my attention. It's My Life East and West by William S. Hart, the silent firm star and movie director who it turns out was born in Newburgh, New York on December 6th, 1864 and soon after moved a thousand miles west to Illinois to live what would be, for most people, a full life [life expectancy was 49.2 in 1900] after which, at age 49, he upped and headed off to southern California, there to become a legendary silent movie star in which he appeared in 65 films. Later still he had a distinguished career as a director. Seemingly marginal, this is another of the books that falls outside the documented 40% and therefore isn't on anyone's screen as a Hudson Valley item. Give Mr. Baade credit for mentioning Newburgh. It got my attention.