Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Library Love

Okay, so maybe I am weird, but I love libraries. But not just any library. It has to have the right ambiance. I like beautiful (usually old) buildings that house beautiful (usually old) books, maps, and ephemera. Seeing these treasures from the past excites me in some primitive way. I usually don't get the same feeling from, say, museums. For me, it seems the old books are fundamental to my DNA in an odd and inexplicable way. Whatever. Thus you won't be surprised to know that on a recent business trip I had to spend some time in a library.

The Rauner Special Collections Library at Dartmouth College (Hanover, New Hampshire) holds a special place for me because of my interest in the polar regions. It is home to the amazing collection of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, an Icelandic-born Canadian who led major exploration and scientific expeditions to the Canadian Arctic in the early 20th century. After his exploring days were over, he began collecting anything to do with the polar (north and south) regions. He became obsessed with his collection, adding anything of value that he could find. He had a sense for which books would eventually be important, so he acquired every copy of those books that he could find and afford. His wife once described their financial situation as being "book poor" all their disposable cash went into feeding Vilhjalmur's obsession.

The Rauner Special Collections Library (thedartmouth.com)
The Rauner Special Collections Library is a fitting place to house the Dartmouth rare book collection including the Stefansson library. The building isn't too old, but it hasn't been polluted with modern-day whiz-bang architectural design. It is tasteful and austere. Inside, however, it is impressive. There is a giant "cube" at one end of the building that contains the rare books in a special climate-controlled environment. In front of this is a well-lit cavernous room for examining the book treasures. It is an inspiring environment for examining precious rare books.
Inside the Rauner Special Collections Library (dartmouth.org)

When you enter the library, the first thing you see is a beautiful display case containing a single treasure that sets the tone for your journey. John James Audobon was an ornithologist who over the period 1827-1839 produced a multi-volume masterpiece, The Birds of America. "The 3 1/2-foot-tall books feature hand-colored prints of all the species known to Audubon in early 19th-century North America. Audubon insisted on the book's large format – printed on the largest handmade sheets available at the time – because of his desire to portray the birds in their actual size and natural habitat. He found creative ways to paint them to fit the page, including showing large species feeding with their necks bent" (huffingtonpost.com). Below is a photograph of the page that was open the day that I visited (apologies for the light, but there was nothing I could do about it).

A page from Audobon's The Birds of America

With over 400 hand-done illustrations, the production values were high and the number of copies, small. On January 20, 2012, a copy of Audobon's book sold for $7.9 million (US). With rare books, condition is everything. A presumably nicer copy sold in December 2010 for $11.5 million.
I spent time looking at some of the rare items in the Stefansson collection. Ernest Shackleton is a famous Antarctic explorer. On his 1907-09 expedition, he came within 100 miles of reaching the South Pole. Realizing the precariousness of his situation, he wisely turned back and lived to tell the tale. (His successor, Robert Falcon Scott, did not turn back and paid the consequences.) While in the Antarctic, Shackleton and his team created a book, Aurora Australis, a labor of love as they whiled away the long winter hours. Possibly as many as 100 copies were produced. Below is a photograph of the title page and an interior page (with Shackleton's signature). In June 2007, a copy of the book sold for 43,200 British pounds.
Aurora Australis

Perhaps Shackleton's most famous expedition was his most famous failure. On his 1914-17 journey to cross the Antarctic continent, his ship became beset in ice and eventually crushed. The story of their miraculous escape over hundreds of miles of ice and the harrowing open-boat journey to safety is considered one of the greatest survival stories (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Shackleton gives you the basic outline, but without the drama). At the library, I held in my hands the personal diary of Thomas Ordes-Lee, a member of Shackleton's crew.
Reading Ordes-Lee's diary

A page from Ordes-Lee's diary showing a map of Elephant Island, where he and most of the crew spent several miserable months waiting for rescue

Sadly, I had only a few hours to spend seeing the Stefansson collection. I will return to Dartmouth sometime soon. Who else would plan a holiday around visiting a library? As I said at the beginning of this post, maybe I am weird...


  1. I share your attraction to old libraries with formal reading rooms, surrounded by shelves of bound volumes. Large chunks of my PhD dissertation were written in the Rutherford South reading room; maybe not the pinnacle of reading room aesthetics, but certainly more inspiring than a grim graduate student office. I remember once being bitterly disappointed when the Special Collections staff would not allow me to work in their excellent space, since I wasn't working directly with the material there.

    And finally, £43,000 seems almost a bargain for Shackleton's signed book.

  2. Hi JS. The combination of old and new with the cube made me think of Cambridge putting the Polar diaries of Robert Falcon Scott on Twitter and blogs. If interested, check out the website for the museum at the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University if Cambridge where you'll find the links. I think you'd like the Scott in any event. www.spri.cam.ac.uk