Jul 092018

“What is Rare Book School? Is that Hogwart’s for librarians?”

Normally confused by ‘library school’, most people don’t realize there is an additional resource for rare book professionals, librarians, and bibliophiles located at the University of Virginia. Yes, there is a school to learn about books, book history, and many other aspects about information management not necessarily available on the job or higher education routes. It is not a given.  I would say there a great privilege being able to attend RBS.  Many library staff, students, and trade / working professionals have limited budgets that does not allow for supplemental professional development, like myself.  There is a real desire for the specific training. I feel very indebted to the individuals who either donate money or are part of the development administration, so that I may attend, which is what I did, on scholarship.

As a continuation of my foundational training, I chose to take Rare Book Cataloging with Deborah J. Leslie, after mostly hearing positive things about the course, but I actually will *use* this material on a daily basis. I also want to mention that even though the course was geared toward DCRM-B (which for the non library catalogers or book trade) is a descriptive standard designed specifically for more in-depth and rigorous transcription and authoritative work for cataloging. Could this apply in the book trade? Of course! I have often found that while the level of cataloging in the book trade is generally subjective, I find it annoying when certain authorities are not supplied, especially for personal names, corporate names, and certain extent descriptions. I suppose as along as you are consistent, however, how impressive would your records look to a library cataloger if they adhered to DCRM-B/RDA?! With library quality transcription of early printed materials!

Same exercise goes for collation. I came back with an enlightened understanding of creating signature statements and the art of collation counting with a Buddhist methodology. It is very Zen counting pages. You hear the crinkle of 18th century chain lined paper, as you gingerly turn the pages. When I returned I wanted to dive right now. So I did! I’m currently working on an unnamed book on witchcraft and demonology from the 17th century. My working signature statement is looking something like this:

A4 B8-R8 chi1 Aa8-Ss8 [+Ss4.2, +Ss6.2] Tt8-Zz8 [-Zz8] Aaaa8 Note: (Ss4-7 blank)(Aaaa4-8 blank)

This is proving both challenging and exciting for the book, finding all sorts of opportunities for deeper notes and observations.  On the same level, I’ve discovered the copy is actually missing pages replaced with blanks, so geeky cataloging stuff, someone down the road would find interesting. In addition to, as a bibliographer and a bookseller these are critical and active nuances of printed materials that are hyper-important for collectors and undoubtedly, inventory illuminations.

The real veggie casserole dish (as opposed to meat and potatoes) for me was in addition to collegial nature of RBS was the opportunity to take some personal time out for independent research. Generally even on “vacation” [because you really never take a vacation as a bookseller], I tend to visit libraries, if just for the building sometimes. However, with purpose and a looming deadline for a presentation, I decided to spend some time in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at UVA.  I’m currently doing research for a paper I’m presenting in September on occult book plates, I’m affectionately calling “Hexlibris,” as opposed to “Sexlibris” which is another talk I could do on Satan and phalluses. #hexlibris #sexlibris [don’t steal, muggles] Anyway, I’m on the hunt for bookplates. Witchy, occulty, masonic, magical ones. I do know that UVA has a large collection of Cotton Mather books, rather “pamphlets” originally gathered by industrialist William Gwinn Mather and donated by Tracy W. McGregor. The books stayed in the family.

Cotton Mather’s bookplate is rather simple, a small white letterpress label with a simple decorative border, almost perfect for a Puritan. William G. Mather’s bookplate is illustrated with a drawing of the elder Richard Mather (Cotton Mather’s grandfather) engraved within a book looking rather John Dee-like. Above that image, an illustration of the Gwinn Mather estate.  The majority of the book contained the ex libris of William G. Mather or Tracy McGregor. Nothing especially metaphysical for my research, so I only looked at a few. There was one book, though, that piqued my interest more than the other I was familiar with titled: “Warnings From the Dead. Or Solemn Admonitions Unto All People; But Especially Unto Young Persons to Beware of Such Evils as Would Bring Them to the Dead” by Cotton Mather. ; In two discourses, occasioned by a sentence of death, executed on some unhappy malefactors. ; Together with the last confession, made by a young woman, who dyed on June 8. 1693. One of these malefactors …  I almost did not look at this book. 

The book was trimmed to fit the binding and was missing part of the title page, however there was enough information, including the publisher and subsequently the bookseller, to identify the correct copy.  So, as I started to leaf through the volume, (mind you the binding is glaringly tight, I propped the book gently with another foam the book cradle). I started with the flyleaves, endpapers, etc. I noticed on the front flyleaf an inscription: “Abigaill Faxson Her book” written in what appeared to be contemporary hand. This was noted in the record. When I turned the leaf, an autograph jumped out at me and I could not believe my eyes. Written in the same period handwriting was the name of “Abigaill Williams,” above that an inscription: “James Bradford is Read it out.” [see images] I returned to the print out of the record and did not see a note for the second set of inscriptions and autograph which baffled me.

Why this might not mean much to most people, it sure as heck meant *a lot* to me. Partially as a cataloger, if I was doing DCRMB/RDA, I would certainly include the autographs and the inscription in the record, but more so as a researcher of early American witchcraft, c. 17th-18th century, this is huge.  Depending on your level of cataloging parameters, I think in this case, it might have been worth recording that information.

Basically, what this opens up for me is a research project on provenance. The questions I immediately want to know why the specific provenance and secondly, it is contemporary to the publication?  There is every indication that Cotton Mather given the subject matter of the sermon was adamant about saving the souls of damned youth guilty of crimes of lust and aberration. We know Mather had contact with Elizabeth Emerson, the young woman who murdered her newborn children in 1693 and was found guilty, executed, but we know Mather had an influence on her original non-guilty plea. He proselytized heavily on the salvation of young people’s souls.  Could Mather or “James Bradford” have read this sermon out to Abigaill?

Additionally, the front flyleaf provenance is also puzzling. “Faxson” is shown in a several genealogical records as a surname for the early part of the 18th century, but without further research, I’m not sure how far back. It is certainly not as common in the Boston/New England area as say, Bradford, Williams, Smith, etc. One clue would be to figure out who is this other Abigaill.

Note on spelling of Abigaill: I have seen so far colonial name spelling conventions for Abigaill spelled with two lls, however uncommon.

After 1693, Abigaill Williams was, for the most part, wiped from the obvious record of history. There are unsubstantiated claims she travelled to Boston and became a prostitute and died a few years later at the age of 17. While there is very little to go on about her life, at this point, this autograph in Mather’s sermon perhaps sheds light on a little more. Then again, the notations could prove very little and rather than piecing together something outlandish and speculated, I would let it rest. Yet, theory is what motivates research. Given my background and combined interests, this is an exciting springboard for me to continue searching for an explanation.  As a cataloger, I would hope that one day, notes will be added to the record reflecting a substantiated provenance. As a researcher, I would like to find Abigaill.

Best advice: Don’t be afraid to look on the “wrong” side of history.

-Kim Schwenk, Rare Book School 2018

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