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.
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.
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.