Insider's Perspective: A Student's Survey of the Bieber Collection
By Rebecca Smyrl
As an aspiring conservator, I often approach and discuss the objects in my care in ways that those outside the field find both alarmingly detailed and shockingly superficial. My work last summer at the Ransom Center gave me a chance to articulate the importance of these details as they cohered to provide useful information, and to see the gaps that they left unfilled. Under the guidance of Olivia Primanis, Senior Book Conservator, and Molly Schwartzburg, Curator of British and American Literature, I developed and implemented a survey for the Bieber collection, examining and recording a series of data points for each item that ultimately aimed to create a concise description of the physical condition of the collection as a whole.
The Bieber collection consists primarily of early American poetry, prose, plays, and songs, many with localized or regional themes, dating from the early 18th to the early 20th centuries. While my work brought to light binding structures, materials, and styles, it also revealed the need for further study from different angles; the Bieber collection clearly has much to offer both to researchers of early American culture and literature and to the history of The University of Texas at Austin and its libraries. For me, the collection both fed a desire to learn more about early American bookbinding materials and practices and served as the basis for my Professional Experience and Project, required as part of my coursework.
With the information I collected, I wanted to facilitate the Ransom Center's curatorial promotion of this collection and to ensure its safe use by prioritizing conservation treatments for items in poor condition. For my own purposes, looking closely at a large number of books within a certain time period is instrumental to developing the ability to place an object into its larger context. Are its style, structure, and materials typical of its date and place of origin, or does some aspect of it stand out? What do unexpected traits say about the object's history? The Bieber materials provided a chance for me to learn to better answer these questions, a skill integral to making responsible and sensitive conservation treatment decisions.
The collection also piqued my interest because of its long history at the University and what it can reveal about libraries and their practices over time. Despite its longtime presence at the University, little is known about the Bieber collection's history and scope. It was purchased in the 1920s from Albert A. Bieber, an antiquarian book dealer and collector from New Jersey who specialized in early American materials. This acquisition built on the foundation of rare book holdings already present at the University, such as the private libraries of John Henry Wrenn and George A. Aitken. Unlike the Wrenn and the Aitken libraries, however, the University probably integrated the Bieber collection into its general holdings at the time of acquisition.
The bulk of the collection currently resides at the Harry Ransom Center. However, portions are dispersed across campus. At the time of the Bieber acquisition, all University collection materials belonged to one central library. As the University grew, the array of specialized libraries, centers, and museums that exist today took possession of relevant materials to establish their own collections. The fragmented nature of the Bieber collection and the specifics of its distribution tell part of the story of the growth of the University's library system. Recording library markings, apparent circulation levels, and instances of repair or rebinding among the collection materials provided a window into the diversity of practices among campus institutions over the years. With my background in conservation, I found the dated repair slips and binding stamps fascinating, through unfortunately my attempts to track patterns in these treatments over time were inconclusive.
Thanks to Albert Bieber's expert collecting eye, spending hour upon hour generating data about acquisition stamps, bookplates, and paper brittleness never grew dull. My preliminary research, conducted using WorldCat to determine which other institutions hold duplicates, suggests that just under one third of the total collection may be considered rare. In addition, approximately half of the collection contains manuscript additions. These primarily take the form of inscriptions, in several cases attributable to the work's author.
A particularly colorful example of added content appears in an 1832 first edition of John Greenleaf Whittier's Moll Pitcher, a poem, an unflattering account detailing fictional exploits of the famous fortune-teller of Lynn, Mass (not to be confused with Molly Pitcher of Revolutionary War fame). This copy of the poem is, as Bieber penciled on its title page, "illustrated curiously with pen + ink sketches of 'Moll Pitcher' and added verse." Though no other Bieber materials that I discovered offer Moll Pitcher's level of manuscript enhancement, from a materials perspective, many other pieces sparked my interest.
The New-England Psalter, from 1771, has covers made of scabbard, a thin wooden board used in the colonies before the widespread availability of binder's board. Though common for the time, scabbard's fragility means that intact examples are rare today. The boards of the Psalter are in excellent condition and are readily visible due to a lifting paste down. People had noted that since the grain of the scabbard runs perpendicular to the spine, it's likely that the book was bound in or near Boston, where it was also printed; in New York, scabbard would have been cut with the grain parallel to the spine. The book's structure was also new to me: rather than being sewn through the fold, as I would have expected, leather supports laced through slits in the text block hold it together. Over the course of my survey, I found several other examples both of intact scabbard and of similar structures. These, along with a number of intact paper bindings intended for temporary retail use, are useful examples of traditional but usually ephemeral bindings, which can give valuable information about binding and bookselling practices in the early days of the country.
Just over one third of the collection consists of 19th and 20th century publisher's case bindings; these books, with their variety of plain and patterned book cloths and their increasingly elaborate cover stamping, reflect changes in decorative style and technique during the industrialization of book production. A smaller portion of the collection consists of illustrated song sheets, which provide a more whimsical glimpse into the sentiments capturing the country's imagination at various moments in the past. Early artist's books, such as the works of William Cook, give a less mainstream view. Cook printed his own texts in Salem, Mass., in the 1850s and1860s, slim books featuring poetry and charming woodcut illustrations. A few even retain their original printed wrappers, while others have been rebound in wallpaper samples and rebound again in acidic pamphlet binders.
The Bieber collection promises to serve as an abundant resource for scholars with diverse interests. Its intellectual contents invite as much attention as its physical appearance and should be the object of further study. Both from content and material perspectives, its offerings add dimension to the study of many aspects of early America, its culture, and its relationship to books and literature.