A Conversation with Sidney Berger

December 11, 2014

Sidney Berger

Scholar, writer, and SLIS adjunct professor Berger talks about his newest book, Rare Books and Special Collections

Esteemed scholar, prolific writer, and adjunct professor at Simmons SLIS Sidney Berger last spoke with Infolink in 2009, as then Director of the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum (now Director Emeritus), overseeing a massive construction and expansion endeavor that continues today. Earlier this year, ALA Neal-Schuman published his newest book, Rare Books and Special Collections. This magnum opus presents an in-depth examination of the rare books and special collections worlds never before collected under one title, from one of the field's most venerable and respected authorities.

Your new book, Rare Books and Special Collections, is described as "a meticulous and systematic understanding of this growing field." Can you discuss the impetus leading to this comprehensive book?

I have been teaching History of the Book since 1971 and Rare Books and Special Collections Librarianship for more than a dozen years, and never had a single volume that covered the field the way I did in class. Thousands of articles and books are out there, and many of them are excellent, but getting students to read such a great number and variety of texts was unrealistic. Further, many writers--even famous ones with good scholarly track records--sometimes get things wrong. Their scholarship is flawed in one way or another. Gutenberg did not invent printing or the printing press; paper was not invented in 105 A.D. by Ts'ai Lun. I wanted a volume that told people what I thought they needed to know if they were working with rare books and special collections, and said things the way they needed to be said. People working in this field needed a single volume that covered the field, and I tried to produce it.

As for factors that are driving the growth in rare books and special collections, the physical objects are beautiful and important, and people will always see this. There is an aesthetic reason that rare books and special collections are alive and well in the world. There is also a fiscal component: a digital version of a rare book or manuscript will not bring a bookseller much money nor will it be a bragging point for a collector. But the physical object can be gloated over and appreciated for its historical and intellectual and aesthetic value as well as its monetary value. There are other things that keep the rare book world alive, but these are the main ones.

As libraries adapt with societal and technological shifts, what impact do these changes have for rare book and special collections?

I love technology almost as much as I love rare books and manuscripts and all those other things that wind up in special collections departments. All library employees work towards the same end: getting information into the hands of those who need it. Technology allows us to do this with greater ease and speed than anything else has done in history. Cataloging and reference, digitizing for preservation purposes, online databases loaded with worlds of information, the ability to order books online from distant booksellers, online pricing guides, vast information resources like Google and other search engines, along with leased or open-access data files--all this and more are at our fingertips now, enabling special collections librarians and their patrons to have access to more information than they could ever process in a thousand lifetimes. As society evolves, one evolution is not taking place--people are still interested in building collections of rare and unusual and "special" items. Technology has not changed that, all it has done is make it possible to do it more efficiently than ever before.

Can you speak to your writing process for a book such as this?

Mark Twain said about the writing of Pudd'hhead Wilson something like: "Writing the book was easy. Revising it nearly killed me." I started working on this book probably more than 40 years ago when I realized that such a text was needed and didn't exist. All of my research and teaching and experience over the decades prepared me to write this book. I make paper, papyrus, tapa cloth, and amate (Mexican bark paper); I cut my own punch, made my own matrix, and cast my own type by hand; I print on a hand press; I do some rudimentary book binding; I have done all kinds of bibliographical work (enumerative, historical, descriptive, and textual); I have designed and printed books and broadsides and cards and other things; I have worked as a rare book librarian and archivist, exposed to all kinds of issues in the field (the kinds of things each chapter in the book talks about); I worked in a great old rare book establishment; and I have been a collector of books and manuscripts and other "special" things most of my life. In a way, I didn't have to do a great deal of research for this book (which I did anyway); I have lived what I have written about.

On the process of writing: I spent innumerable evenings and weekends at my laptop, and then I spent untold hours rereading and proofing. My computer told me that in the writing of this book, I had over 4 million keystrokes (not counting the retyping over typos, rewriting and revising passages, rethinking my wording, and weeding out redundancies). That is why I have had to undergo surgery on both hands.

You did an interview for Simmons SLIS in 2009 when the Phillips Library was just entering its massive expansion and reorganization. Is the project complete? What did you take away from the experience?

I could write a book answering these questions. The 2009 project was funded and got under way by early 2010. It was in two giant parts: renovating and expanding the building and cataloging the collection. The first part turned out to be much more expensive than we had anticipated, so part of that project is done: the renovation of the roof, windows, brick repointing, masonry of all kinds, column replacement, gutters and downspouts, and so forth. The two 1850s buildings now look splendid from the outside. There is still the internal reconfiguration and expansion, and we will need to raise a substantial amount of money to do that, so that is now on hold.

The cataloging started out with about 9% of our records online, and now we have about 90% online. This is a major accomplishment for which I am quite proud, but the remaining 10% of a very large collection is still a lot of things left to do. We are still working on that project.

What I took away from the experience is covered partly in my book in the sections on the moving and cataloging of a collection. I had moved a rare book library once before, but I learned more about that in this project. I learned about working with architects, movers, staff, institution leaders, costs and budgets, psychology, and much more. I had reinforced that no matter how much you plan, it isn't enough; no matter how much you budget, it isn't enough. No matter how much space you think you will need in a temporary facility, it isn't enough. And no matter how much training and oversight you give to the movers, it wasn't enough.

Will you be able to catalog the entire collection? How do you see this increased access impacting the institution?

We are approaching a point at which about 90% of the collection is now cataloged, but we realize that we will never finish. No living collection is ever fully cataloged. We keep adding to it, and we keep finding cataloging records that need to be fixed, enhanced, or altered in some way. But as we predicted, our use is up significantly. In a few months we will have a better handle on actual use numbers, but there is no doubt that the number of researchers we have coming in--even at our difficult-to-get-to temporary facility--has gone up. And while in the past about 20% of our patrons were genealogists, we are now seeing more "real" or "scholarly" researchers, so that maybe only about 5% of our patrons work on genealogy now.

Were new acquisitions on hold during this process? How about looking forward?

What? Me not buy new things? Are you kidding? I could not survive if I had to put acquisitions on hold. We continued to buy vast numbers of newer books for the curators and rare materials for all researchers. Looking forward, I see this continuing. The Phillips Library is a great research facility with absolutely amazing collections. You would have to be some kind of nut--and derelict in your duty--not to keep adding significantly to the collection.

Could you talk about acquisition process? Do you get approached, or do they mostly come about through searches on your end?

I have a large chunk of information about acquisition in my book. It would take pages here to answer this question fully. In a nutshell (or as it is sometimes spelled when we talk about the craziness of acquisition, in a nut's hell): We get dealers' catalogs, quotes from dealers who offer stuff to us before they offer the items to anyone else (quotes come by mail, email, phone calls, and dealer drop-ins), requests from curators and scholars, advertisements of all kinds of library materials in the mail and from electronic sources, and so forth. Not to mention the things that I see at antiquarian book fairs, in bookstores, and at ephemera fairs. I identify things I think we need, discuss many of these things with the experts (the curators or scholars or my staff), and then I order the things we need and can afford. A whole realm of discussion needs to be stuck in here--if we are talking about acquisition--concerning funds and fundraising and appraisal. No room for it now. Call me. I have a 2-hour lecture on it.

Your new book explores the occurrence and history of forgeries and fakes. Is this a rampant problem in the world of rare books and special collections? Can you highlight a few infamous examples?

This could turn into yet another book. Is it possible that forgery is a great problem in the rare book world? Yes, it is possible, and librarians must keep a wary eye for just such things. Is it rampant? Possibly, but the really great forgeries have yet to be detected. Wherever there is money to be made, forgers could try to make it. The Thomas Wise and Harry Buxton Forman story is one of the best. They created a host of little pamphlets that seemed to predate the true first editions by a year or more, and the story of John Carter's and Graham Pollard's detection is fascinating. Then there was Denis Vrain-Lucas, who forged thousands of documents and passed them off to gullible and pretty stupid buyers. The Wikipedia article has this: "Over 16 years Vrain-Lucas forged a total of 27,000 autographs, letters, and other documents from such luminaries as Mary Magdalene, Cleopatra, Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate, Joan of Arc, Cicero and Dante Alighieri--written in contemporary French and on watermarked paper. The most prominent French collectors bought them, helping Lucas accumulate a significant wealth of hundreds of thousands of francs." You had to be one of the stupidest collectors in the world to assume that Pontius Pilate and Cleopatra wrote in French, but he fooled a lot of people. There is a huge literature on forgeries and fakes. Here is another hour-long lecture--or five of them.

In your last interview with Simmons SLIS you said, "No matter what area of librarianship you're going into, even if it's IT, you have to know about books as artifacts, how they are made, how they have been used and abused." You would expect most LIS professionals to agree, but could you speak to why it is so vital that library and info specialists know the history of the book? What are some examples of abuse and what lessons should we cull from them?

All people in the library world are ultimately dealing in some way or another with information, much of which is still in analog form. In fact, more and more actual physical books are being produced today than ever before in history. Over 300,000 new titles in the U.S. alone last year. So getting to the information that these books contain is the job of all who work in libraries. IT people help us with digital means of storing and retrieving information. So how books are manufactured, what they are made of, how they contain data, how that data can be mined, and so forth--this is part of what IT folks help us determine.

I was once called into a bookseller's shop to see an incunabulum he had just bought--that is, a book printed before 1501. He had spent a lot of money on it. I looked at it and told him in under 10 seconds that it was a fake. It was printed on wove paper, which didn't exist until about 1757. This kind of knowledge is important for people working in libraries--and this is in my book.

The lesson is, no matter what field of librarianship you work in, the more you know about the things that libraries contain, the better a librarian you will be. You never know when such information will come in handy. And since librarianship has at its root the idea of "liber" (book), the more that people in the profession know about books and manuscripts and the other analog materials of libraries, the better they will be at what they do.

When discussing your projects with Doe Press, you had said, "I try not to do things that are not important." Do you see the idea of importance as being subjective? Are the things that are important unique to the individual--i.e., the things we are passionate about? Or do you feel this is a social responsibility? Should we as a culture assess and determine collectively what we value in terms of preservation, research focus, etc.?

With the Doe Press, I try to print texts that I believe are good quality literature--usually poetry. And since I am the proprietor of the press, I must rely on my own judgment of what is "good." I have printed the poetry of some important writers (Gary Snyder, Richard Eberhard, Thom Gunn, Donald Justice, Karl Shapiro, and others), and I love the texts they wrote that I printed. I do think that such judgments are subjective, but I go on my own aesthetic, and I do not want to print--and foist upon the world--anything that I think is not worth my efforts. And creating the Doe Press books is indeed a great deal of effort, what with hand setting all that type, getting it into the press, inking it up by hand to print one sheet at a time, doing the binding by hand, and so forth. I am passionate about this kind of work. It is therapeutic, and in the end, I think that the books I have printed under the Doe Press imprint are attractive and important contributions to literature.

Is my printing these books a social responsibility? Not exactly. What is socially responsible is, as I said, not creating ugly objects or bad texts. And "badness" is, again, subjective. It is my own judgment as to what is good or bad, attractive or not, and so forth.

The final question you ask shifts the topic to assessment for preservation, a huge topic in the library field. We of course do not want to preserve things that are not worth preserving, but who is to judge what is worth saving and what should be jettisoned? There is a large literature in the library world on this topic.

One example of a socially important work would be the Doe Press printing of Thom Gunn's Lament, the first poem published about the death of someone from AIDS. Can you discuss how this project came about? Is Doe Press currently planning any new publications?

As an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley back about 90 or 100 years ago, I took a course in the English Department from a wonderful and relatively famous poet, Thom Gunn. It was one of the best undergrad classes I had, and I could hardly wait to get to class when he was teaching. Many years later, after getting a Master's and Ph.D., I ran into Gunn in a bookstore in Berkeley. I reintroduced myself to him and I told him I had been studying fine press printing under Kim Merker, one of the 20th century's great book designers and printers. Gunn knew him, because Merker had published one of his poetry collections. I asked Gunn if he would let me print some of his poems, and he told me he had just finished writing "Lament," as you said, the first poem about the death of someone from AIDS. I love the poem and the haunting illustration that I commissioned for it. There is another 1000 words to write about this project. I will leave it at this.

Right now I am so busy that I have put the Doe Press into semi-hibernation. My students who come to our house at the end of each semester get to print themselves a keepsake on the hand press, but no books are in the offing right now. I have a book of poems half printed, but that has to wait till I finish writing 5 other texts that are in the works.

You talk of the printing process as being therapeutic and mention Gilbert & Sullivan on the record player while deep in concentration for hours at a time. In addition to books and decorative paper, do you also have a substantial vinyl collection? Any particular gems? Does the Phillips Library include any music-related items in its collection?

Michèle and I have the compulsory vinyl from our youths--maybe 250 records, all of which I love. We certainly don't collect these things, though I do have a working turntable that I crank up every now and then when I have a long printing project to do. No great gems in the gathering, though I do have a first recording of the musical "Gypsy" in the original sleeve, signed by the principles in the cast: Rosalind Russell, Natalie Wood, Karl Malden, and Paul Wallace.

The Phillips Library does not collect such things, but it does have scads of early American manuscripts of music, along with lots of things on dance and other kinds of entertainment. This is one of the great libraries in the country, and I have been blessed to be its director for nearly 8 years.

By Dean's Communications Fellow Lily Troia