With the increased popularity of video conferencing platforms like Zoom over the last few years, more and more people began to notice room backgrounds. The idea of “rating the room” often became more important than what was discussed.[i] Many of these ratings focused on a person’s book shelves and their contents, organization, or disorganization. The raters would dissect the shelves’ contents to see what details they offered about those they met only virtually. In a time when many of us were only visible on computer or phone screens, viewing a person’s library was another way to form some sort of connection.
In the Toppan Rare Book Library, we acquire the personal libraries of individuals and use the collections to learn more about them by looking at the books they collected and kept. Were the books well-read, did the owner make notes throughout the books, what types of personal items were tucked away in the book, like a pressed flower or a valentine? All of these clues can tell us more about the books’ owners and we can even surmise in some instances why these particular books were kept over time.
One of the benefits of researching at the American Heritage Center is the large manuscript collection and the Toppan Rare Book Library. Many of the persons who donated their personal papers also generously donated their book collections so you can study both sets of materials side by side. This is especially beneficial in the case of authors where you can examine their manuscript collections to discover their work process but then look at their book collection to see what books or authors they read for research, enjoyment, or inspiration.
Some examples of corresponding manuscript and rare book collections housed at the AHC are psychologist R. Leo Sprinkle, journalists Grace Richardson, Irene Kuhn, and Joan Younger Dickinson, author Katharine Burt, and University of Wyoming professor Agnes Mathilde Wergeland.
Recently the Toppan Library catalogued a set of books owned by Harriet Hinsdale. Her collection contained copies of books she authored but also a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction on various subjects. The AHC also holds Hinsdale’s manuscript collection, which contains photographs, articles and book drafts, some correspondence, research for her writing, and diaries.
In particular her diaries offer a fascinating look at her research and writing process. Hinsdale’s five-year diary written between 1946 and 1950 indicates that she spent similar amounts of time researching and working on each project and can even track the times of year she generally traveled for research trips.
This diary provides an in-depth look at two of her well-known projects, the 1943 play Crescendo and her 1950 romance novel, Be My Love. She traveled to Boston while writing Be My Love and noted research visits at various libraries and explorations at historic sites around the city that were significant for the setting of the book. In her book collection is a volume titled Report of the Record Commissioner, Boston Town Records, 1742-1757 which contained laws and town policies. Another likely useful book in her research was Three Heroines of New England Romance published in 1895. Publications like these helped to ensure an accurate depiction of the social and political society of the time periods she portrayed in her works.
In addition to her personal papers, Hinsdale’s rare book collection offers us more insight into her work and her personal life. Her library contains numerous novels, non-fiction, poetry, and other genres, but of particular significance are works that were adapted into plays. The latter relates not only to her work writing Hollywood screenplays and plays, but also to her father, Thomas W. Broadhurst, and her uncle, George Broadhurst, who also worked as writers, playwrights, directors, and producers.
Works written by women authors or books about gender relations were also prominent in Hinsdale’s library. Novels by Lillian Hellman, Ethel Jacobson, Rachel Field, Irehna Hobson, and Fern Rives all feature prominently in the collection. Some of the books related to the relationships between men and women, but a few look more deeply into gendered ideas of the time such as Women Pro & Con (1958) and Wings to Youth (1950) by Irehna Hobson which looks at ideas of beauty and the struggle to remain young. While we cannot know for sure whether these were for research or pleasure, we can surmise that these books were significant to Hinsdale as she kept them in her collection, knowing she would eventually donate them to a library upon her death, which occurred in 1982.
One of my favorite aspects of being a researcher and an archivist is having the opportunity to have access to the collected papers of individuals whose story can be told through the materials they collected throughout their life. While the breadth of the manuscript and rare book collections at the AHC is vast and varied, taking the time to consider an individual’s personal book collection is worthwhile. It can reveal a lot about that person. It can also help those of us in the present day relate and make connections to the books that have been read, enjoyed, and treasured over time.
Post contributed by Toppan Rare Books Librarian Mary Beth Brown.
[i] Room Rater X (twitter) account: @ratemyskyperoom