Poor Richard’s Biblomac


Volume 1, number 1, above the fold. Call number (Ex) 0100.733e

August 1940, New York City.
Publishers Burstein and Chappe issue Poor Richard’s Biblomac.

An excerpt from the lead editorial:

For the most part, Poor Richard’s Biblomac reflects and idea we have – an idea that anyone whose stock-in-trade is books – the librarian, the bookseller, the publisher—has a function in democratic society that means something more than delivering books from stack to reader. And, today, when the propaganda of self-acclaimed patriots and pundits is peddled among more and more customers so that democracy is in increasing danger of finding itself saved by totalitarians, when labeling individuals and groups with the neologism “fifth column” is becoming a national pastime and when the word and the book is suspect, there is a need for a publication which will discuss the issues which confront the bookman in his capacity as citizen, discuss his function and urge its exercize. Poor Richard’s Biblomac may not be that publication but we will try.

Because we believe that the book, as much as the bullet, is ammunition for the democratic state—that the needs of our American democracy are best served by more, and not less, democracy, we will expose and oppose trends and movements designed to cripple libraries and hamper book production and reading. We have made a start, we think by devoting part of this issue to the question: shall libraries censor reading?

We have no illusion that we shall turn tides or, more modestly, change attitudes. We are content if, from time to time, we shall be able to create interest and discussion in vital problems, ruffle the calm waters of the status quo and, if necessary, make nuisances of ourselves about things we think matter. Herbert Burstein.

Little is known about Burstein and Chappe. However, one of the contributors to this first issue was Lawrence Heyl, acting head librarian at Princeton during 1939 -1940, and long time library officer, retiring in 1962 as Associate Librarian. Presumably, because of Heyl’s interest in the publication, the Library preserved the Biblomac, which lasted only three issues. Today, it signals the acute concern of American librarians at the time — Archibald MacLeish foremost among them — that preserving democracy meant engagement not isolation.

A Sexagenarian in New Jersey

Sixty years ago today, on September 7, 1948, Firestone Library, the University’s central main library, opened its doors to the public. The opening capped a process of analysis, planning, fund-raising, design, and construction stretching back into the early 1920s when it first became evident that Pyne Library, constructed 1896-97, was running out of space.

According to Meg Rich’s “Firestone at Fifty: History with a Human Face,” Princeton University Library Chronicle 60:1 (Autumn, 1998), p. 9 ff, during the summer of 1948, “thirty-seven undergraduates, 90 percent of them war veterans, worked for ten weeks to move the better part of 1.2 million volumes over a 100-yard ramp from old shelves to new.” The names and classes of all students involved appears together with their group photograph on page 19. [NB – When the author published this article she was known as Peggy Meyer Sherry.]

The photograph above right show students moving books from the dismal basement of Pyne. Adjacent is an early photograph of the front elevation of Firestone.

Parallel worlds — The New Bibliopolis

At right is figure 1.4 in Willa Z. Silverman’s recently published The New Bibliopolis: French Book Collectors and the Culture of Print, 1880-1914 (University of Toronto, 2008). “Binding with silver and gold tooling by Pétrus Ruban (1896) for Voltaire, Zadig, ou, La Destinée (1893).” [Illustration credit: Princeton University Library, Rare Book Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, (Ex) PQ2082 .Z3 1893q]

Explaining why and how this book came into the Library, not to mention that it was first owned by Henri Beraldi (1849-1931), an important character in the New Bibliopolis, is a story unto itself. More fundamental is a larger narrative of two parallel worlds. Considering closely the story of the New Bibliopolis provides an intriguing glimpse at collecting in the New and Old Worlds at the end of the nineteenth century.

Prof. Silverman provides a comprehensive view of a world created by bibliophiles of a post-war generation. They are the “generation that came of age with the disastrous 1870 French defeat by Prussia.” (p.12) They were wealthy, literary men who took language and discourse seriously. They prized being able to recognize what the stakes were — technology was going to displace the humanity of communication. Technology was headed to up-end what they prized in communication, such as the stimulation of the imagination. They “established themselves as champions of a paradoxical ‘newness’ that in fact attempted to combine an allegiance to modernity with a stalwart defence of French traditions.” (p.19)

What is striking here is that this group shared a mood now recognized as part of a larger mood occurring internationally in the advanced capitalist nations at the end of the nineteenth century. For the United States, this mood is best documented in Jackson Lears’s No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920, detailing in full the narrative of “a yearning for authentic experience” (p. xix) among the “ruling groups in a developed capitalist society” (p. xvi). This group too was a post-war generation, coming of age after Appomattox.

In both instances collecting served a restorative end. For the French “bibliophiles contemporains,” documented so well by Silverman, collecting meant creating, distributing, and preserving books signaling the ideals of their own era, rather than purchasing, re-binding, and shelving books from the past. For them, modern bibliophily meant being “creative,” “prospective,” and being “a wise friend of books, free from all ostentation and vanity”(p. 5, 16). They dubbed those of the old school as “the archeologicans of the book” (p. 22, 222 n. 4).

On the other hand, late nineteenth century American collectors sought out old books, paid high prices for “Americana” (early European books about the discovery and settlement of the Americas), and valued the transformative power of the original to “connect the present with the past.” Authentic experience was the prize.

The phrase above regarding “connecting” is that of Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918), historian, book collector and first president of Cornell, who added that “in our work, it seemed to me well to impress, upon the more thinking students at least, the idea that all they saw had not ‘happened so,’ without the earnest agency of human beings; but that it had been the result of the earnest life-work of men and women, and that no life-work to which a student might aspire could be more worthy.
… ” (Autobiography, p. 407-409)