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Rare finds: Book collectors share the thrill of the hunt

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John Carberry
Katherine Reagan
Liz Borod Wright
Katherine Reagan, Ernest L. Stern '56 Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at Cornell, hosted a Cornell Library Salon March 16 at New York City's Grolier Club, the oldest society for American bibliophiles, about the vital role that collectors play in scholarship.

The oldest printed Russian translation of "Aesop's Fables"; one of just 12 known copies of Edgar Allan Poe's first published book; letters from a doctor caring for wounded Civil War soldiers. These are but a few of the many treasures that collectors have shared with Cornell.

Katherine Reagan, the Ernest L. Stern '56 Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, hosted a Cornell Library Salon March 16 at New York City's Grolier Club, the oldest society for American bibliophiles, about the vital role that collectors play in scholarship. Four collectors who have either loaned or donated materials to Cornell Library explained how they got started, emphasized the importance of preservation, relayed tales about their most exciting acquisitions and poked fun at the obsessive nature of collectors.

"As the world continues to move faster and faster, the handwritten record is becoming more and more a thing of the past," said Stephen Rudin, husband of Gail Gifford Rudin '56. Their collection of Civil War letters can be seen at the Carl A. Kroch Library; the Rudins have also helped Cornell fill out its collection of presidential documents. Eventually, they plan to give all of his collections to Cornell.

Jon Lindseth '56, who has given Cornell highly valuable collections on the history of women's suffrage and on Russian fables, explained how collectors can complement the efforts of librarians.

"Collectors provide something that few librarians are able to do, and that is collect in depth, often in very narrow fields," Lindseth said. "Libraries just have too many collection requirements to do what collectors do. They must spread their scarce resources in too many ways."

The collectors shared stories about the thrill of the chasing down hard-to-find books and artifacts. Stephan Lowentheil, J.D. '75, another major donor to the Cornell Library, recalled the joys of visiting bookstores in Camden, Maine, during his early collecting days.

"These were the days before the Internet made book searches and book dealing a sedentary event practiced by thousands of avid computer searchers," said Lowentheil, who has made major contributions to the library's Lincoln and Darwin exhibitions. "Way back in those good old days, book dealers and collectors toured the nation and the world in search of interesting volumes and elusive titles."

But for Susan Jaffe Tane, it was a serendipitous find that launched her collecting career. She explained how she loved collecting and loved books, but it wasn't until she spotted a first edition of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven and Other Poems" at a New York antique show in 1987 that she combined her two passions.

"As I fondled that leather cover, I knew I had to own it," said Tane, who is now considered to have the greatest private Poe collection in the world. Her esteemed Mark Twain collection will be on display at the Kroch Library beginning April 23 in an exhibition titled "Known to Everyone -- Liked by All: The Business of Being Mark Twain."

But collecting isn't just about preserving work by famous authors. Rudin captivated the audience when he read a heart-wrenching letter by Maria Banks, a former slave, begging a wealthy merchant to give her some money so she wouldn't lose her small home in 1875.

"What happened to Maria Banks?" Rudin said. "We do not know. But I know that I have preserved her voice from the past … and have enabled a voice from the past to speak to the voices of the present."

Liz Borod Wright '99 is a freelance writer in New York City.


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