A Mysterious Box, Part I

Several years ago, I moved into an office being vacated by a professor close to retirement.  Our areas of interest were a few hundred years apart, but still close enough that he kindly gave me various books and runs of journals for which he no longer had any use.  Along with these he also gave me a battered cardboard box.  It had been given to him, he said, by another retiring professor some years before but he knew nothing of its previous history.  Within it were perhaps two dozen photograph albums, dating, it would seem, from the first half of the twentieth century.

Not long after I received this strange bequest, I moved house, then moved house again, and it was only this weekend, as the Historian and I were emptying some boxes left over from our last move, that it came once more to light.  Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing a series of posts about the mysterious box and its contents, beginning today with the first two albums I picked – more or at less at random – from the top of the pile.

Both are long rectangular albums, secured with cord and the first one I open is bound in printed paper with a sort of tan and purple primitivist motif – something from the thirties, I imagine, as I gently remove it from the box.  My guess is broadly confirmed by the neat inscription in silver ink on the first page: Schweizerreise vom 9.-28. August 1928.  Somebody, a German speaker, on holiday in Switzerland.  The pressed flowers are entrancing, but I tear myself away from them and begin to leaf through the pages.

The protagonists soon make themselves known: a husband and wife, and their two daughters, young teenagers.  The photos are often not very well exposed – I imagine the brilliant Alpine light defeating amateur photographic attempts – but have an air of happiness and intimacy about them. 

The family are busy, hiking to Reichenbach Falls and descending by metal walkways into the depths of the nearby Aare Gorge.  Intermixed with these snaps are picture postcards of sites in the region: the Wetterhorn, Kurhaus Rosenlaui, Interlaken, and more. 

One picture towards the end strikes me especially.  It is captioned Im Zuge von Bern nach Basel (on the train from Bern to Basel) and shows the Husband and the more serious of the two Daughters sitting in their compartment, both reading the newspaper.  Something about the intent concentration of the Daughter, her eyes downcast towards the page, reminds me of old photographs of my own Russian-German grandmother. 

The final photograph shows the Wife and Daughters standing in the porch of a rather grand apartment building and is captioned Wieder in Koblenz.  Our protagonists would seem to hail from Koblenz in the Rhineland.  Loose with this album is an older photograph – nineteenth century – of a husband and wife.  I think they look a little like the Husband, but the photographer’s studio is in Neubrandenburg, far in the northeast.  Perhaps the family had not always been in Koblenz?

The next album is the same shape, but with a different paper binding, this one imitating the texture of woven cloth.  A label in the back proclaims its origins in the shop of August Kreutzer, Löhrstrasse 82, Koblenz – more evidence for our protagonists’ residence.  Five years have passed: the first group of photos here are dated “Waldeck 1933”.  The family are here as well, the daughters now young women, but most of the photos are of a large group of young people, evidently having a ball at “Haus Waldeck”.  My eye for faces is poor, but I think I see the daughters amongst them.

The latter half of the album is in a different key.  It is headed “Davos 1933.-35.” and its enigmatic opening page contains two pressed flowers, two cut out photographs of younger men, and, in the centre, a portrait of the Husband. 

He is sitting at a desk, books behind him, and wears a white hospital coat beneath which his immaculate tie and stiff collar can just be seen.  Was he a doctor at the Magic Mountain? 

The following pages are full of smiling men and women on excursions in the snow, but also of scenes from a sanatorium: doctors on their rounds down the aisles and someone – is it one of the daughters? – lying in bed. 

Over her stands one of the young men from the half title page, her husband, I suppose.  They are smiling, but I wonder if I fully understand what I am seeing.

Other things have changed as well since the family’s trip to Switzerland five years before.  A postcard pasted in amongst the snaps shows a building, perhaps the sanatorium, and flying over it the Swiss cross and the Nazi swastika.  Already I seem to know surprisingly much and yet still tantalisingly little about these people.  What will become of them?  Who were they?  And how did these time capsules of their memories and emotions, frozen in the exposure of film, reach me, nearly a hundred years later?

© 2019 Kelsey Jackson Williams.

The Scholar as Collector

I am always entranced by other academics’ bookshelves. Whenever I have the occasion to meet someone in their office, I find my mind wandering from the conversation at hand as I squint at the titles of their books and inwardly commend this or that especially intriguing-looking volume. Most often, the books I see are pragmatic collections, built out of necessity and convenience: this oft-cited monograph, that standard edition of a key primary text, and the inevitable drift of fifteen-year-old incomplete sets of the Scottish Historical Review or Past and Present. Their existence was informed by their owners’ research, not the other way around.

Sometimes, though, you come across a different kind of library altogether: one assembled by a scholar who is also a collector. This is not to suggest the parodic image of a hoarding bibliophile, lost amongst teetering piles of precious volumes, but rather that of a scholar for whom books have – at some point – ceased to be simply tools and become objects of fascination in and of themselves. For me, this is the most interesting collection insofar as it displays the fertile interchange between a writer and their books. Looking at their shelves you see the obscure nineteenth-century edition they made such good use of in an article or the long run of foreign state papers, published in Stockholm or Helsinki at the beginning of the last century, which underpinned one of their more groundbreaking monographs. This sort of collection not only preserves a record of their research, but, viewing it, you can sense the ways in which it continues to influence and direct their thinking: the books themselves have become subjects, interlocutors, who are the subject of and define new research.

The scholar-collector’s library: a different kind of research tool?

Such scholars remind me of some of our nineteenth-century predecessors, David Laing (1793-1878), for example, whose collection of books and manuscripts surpassed that of many national libraries and now – even in fragmentary form – makes up a substantial part of Edinburgh University Library’s manuscript collection. For someone like Laing the acts of scholarship and collecting were inextricably entwined with research leading to new acquisitions, just as new acquisitions in turn inspired further research. What many of us now would think of as the separate purviews of a research-focused academic and a special collections library were fused into a single, dynamic act of historical and intellectual recovery.

Sir William Fettes Douglas, Portrait of David Laing (1862), National Galleries of Scotland.

I wonder if we miss something by not imitating Laing. No longer can we expect to assemble, say, a collection of early modern manuscripts to rival his (unless our purses are deeper than those of most modern academics), but there is still a wealth of material relevant to so many of us which has not found its way into public collections but instead floats and jostles on the sea of the antiquarian market. Would those of us who study early modernity and its successor ages do well to spend slightly less time in libraries and slightly more in bookshops and auction houses, or even in our chairs at home, browsing eBay? I think so. We needn’t discover an unknown edition or catch a priceless manuscript for the act of collecting to transform our research. Even the simple fact of possession can be enough for us to see something different, exceptional, and worth studying in the most mundane book and that, in turn, can lead to avenues of research and discovery we could never otherwise have expected.

So, as strange and old-fashioned as it may seem, I salute the scholar-collector. They view their field from a subtly different vantage point than do many of their colleagues and that shift of perspective can result – and has resulted – in some of the most exciting scholarly work of our time.

© Kelsey Jackson Williams, 2019.