Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Friday, February 15, 2008

A Love of Collecting

While I spend more than I should on books, I am not a serious collector. I am not buying rare books, combing dealers’ catalogues, or scrolling the Web in the search for the missing item in my personal collection. I buy books with a strictly utilitarian purpose – to support my research and teaching (or to indulge in my enjoyment reading in the history of baseball and golf). With minor exception, I acquire a title, read it, mark it up, reread it when necessary and make additional notes for a course lecture or an essay I am writing. Of course, now I also buy, read, and annotate books for this blog. While I have an extensive library, this is not a special collection but a working reference unit. While I love the physicality of the book, and certainly enjoy the feel and look of a beautifully designed and produced volume, I just as soon possess a tattered edition I can employ for my own objectives.

The legal scholar Alan Dershowitz is a true collector. In his Finding Jefferson: A Lost Letter, A Remarkable Discovery, and the First Amendment in an Age of Terrorism (New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2008), Dershowitz not only employs his acquiring of an 1801 Jefferson letter to write about first amendment rights, but he places this discovery in the context of his own collecting. Dershowitz, it turns out, is an energetic collector of rare books, newspapers, manuscripts, and art – and, as it seems, just about anything striking his fancy. The first part of his book is about collecting, where he concludes, among other things, that the “joy of collecting lies generally in finding an item that appeals to the collector’s aesthetic, historical, or personal sensibilities. Finding the object is an end unto itself . . . . But the joy is magnified when the item has a value beyond the intrinsic – when it teaches us something we didn’t know” (p. 18). When in September 2006 Dershowitz discovers the Jefferson letter in the Argosy Bookstore and purchases it, these aspects of collecting become more evident.

Dershowitz describes the Jefferson letter as the “greatest acquisition of my career as a collector” (p. 50). It is why he writes both about collecting and Jefferson’s views about freedom of religion, speech, and conscience – the topics handled by old Tom in his letter. Dershowitz provides a detailed provenance of the letter, warming the hearts of archivists everywhere, finding that the letter had been in one family for 205 years until the document was sold to the bookstore. Dershowitz’s book is mostly about Jefferson’s notions about such matters, but interestingly the author writes most of his analysis in the form of a letter to Jefferson.

Finding Jefferson is, therefore, also homage to Jefferson the letter-writer. Dershowitz notes that Jefferson wrote no books, but that it is in his epistles that Jefferson reveals the “most important and revealing source of his philosophy” (p. 82). The importance Jefferson’s correspondence is such for Dershowitz that he announces his intention to teach a seminar for first year Harvard Law School students called “The Letters of Thomas Jefferson.” In this course, “we will read hundreds of his letters relating to the Constitution, to law, and to political philosophy in an effort to understand better the American legal system” (p. 86). I am sure most of us rather learn about the law by reading Jefferson’s letters than a dry legal text.