or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week – 5/4/08

   May 10th, 2008

Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain) A few weeks ago, I got an email at the library from a librarian working towards a Masters Degree in American Studies. She was researching Mark Twain, and specifically whether public libraries during his life censored his works.

She was contacting all the libraries in the country that were open at the time (Chelmsford's Adams Library is usually dated at 1894, but various library associations in the town date to the 1790's), hoping our accession records would indicate which Twain books were held by the library, and whether they were shelved as adult or childrens books.

Up until this question, I had a vague understanding that we had old library records, but I didn't know how extensive they were, what condition they were in, or what was in them. So I was happy to get this question, as in the course of helping someone, I also had an excuse to check out these records.

It turns out, there is a lot in the library archive. Much of it are treasurer reports or invoice logs, and were either uninteresting (to me) or indecipherable (just columns and columns of numbers). But I also found library member rolls from the late 1800's, and one ledger even had the circulation history of the patrons (all done in longhand).

But getting down to brass tacks, I was very happy to find book lists from the era, which listed the books, author, publisher, date, call number, and a few other things. And it turned out that there were two libraries operating in Chelmsford at the time, which were later merged into the single library I work in today. So, I was able to research this question in both sets of records.

But here's the best part: one book in the archive was entitled "List of Books (not all juvenile) for Boys" and was prepared by Librarian Emma J. Gay. It consisted of handwritten pages broken up into sections (Stories, History, Biography, Travel, Scientific, Natural History, Games and Amusements, and Miscellaneous). The title page, along with a title page for each section, was professionally typeset and printed, and the whole book was professionally bound in hardcover.

In the Stories section, there is the following entry:

Clemens, S. L. (Mark Twain)
   Adventures of Tom Sawyer 1505 [accession number]
   Adventures of Huckleberry Finn 1803 [accession number]

I really want to do something with this book, but I don't know what. I'm guessing it dates to the 1880's, and it was interesting flipping through seeing what books back then appealed to boys.

And for the record, here are the Mark Twain holdings I could locate in the archive:

Title Author1 Date Call No.2 Source3
Adventures of Tom Sawyer S. L. Clemens (Mark Twain) 1881 c625.2 NCLA
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn S. L. Clemens (Mark Twain) 1885 c625.1 NCLA
A Tramp Abroad Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain) 1889 c914.8 NCLA
The Innocents Abroad S. L. Clemens "Mark Twain" 1894 c625.2 NCLA
Prince and Pauper Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain) 1895 c55.7 CFPL
Adventures of Tom Sawyer Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain) 1895 c55.13 CFPL
Sketches New and Old Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain) 1895 c55.9 CFPL
American Claimant Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain) 1895 c55.1 CFPL
Joan of Arc / Personal Reflections of Samuel Langhorne Clemens 1896 c55.2 CFPL
A Tramp Abroad Samuel Langhorne Clemens 1896 c87.22 CFPL
1: It was interesting to see the different ways his name was written, and that "Mark Twain" was always secondary
2: Most of these are a mystery to me
3: NCLA: North Chelmsford Library Association; CFPL: Chelmsford Free Public Library

Some of the records were too fragile to use, and some of the handwriting illegible, so I don't think this is a complete list. I emailed what I found to the patron, and she was very happy, and it was fun to this kind of real historical research for a change.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

3 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 5/4/08”

  1. Martha Patten Says:

    Oh, that’s interesting – I work in Carlisle and we received the same inquiry here.

    We have a printed catalogue of the library’s collection as of 1896, when the current building first opened. The books were listed alphabetically by title within each class (similar to the sections in yours) – the only Twain title I found was Life on the Mississippi, classified under “Humorous” with only a handful of other books.

    There were some children’s books listed with the regular fiction, but the town report for that year mentions that, with the opening of the new building, the librarians discarded some books that weren’t worth keeping, while “many of a childish nature, hardly worth cataloguing, but too good to be thrown away” were kept on a shelf where “children have the pleasure of reading them.”

    It was definitely fun looking at the records, though (in 1896, the library was open 2 hours a week, on Saturdays, with a limit of 3 books per family; anyone who was disorderly one week could be banned for the following week.)

  2. Connie Harrison Says:

    We, too, received the same request. We have the original accession books from 1833 when the library was founded. They are in remarkably good shape and the handwriting in them is wonderful. We found 20 items by Clements added to the collection during his lifetime. If you did the math from the 1833 date, we are celebrating the library’s 125th birthday this year. Among the things that will be displayed (in a locked glass case) will be a couple of the old accession books.

  3. Brian Herzog Says:

    I’m not sure how many libraries this student contacted, but it looks like sh does serious research.

    @Connie: I like the idea of putting these archives on display – I’m going remember that on our next anniversary.