Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"A Quantity of Books": Unitemized Early American Libraries

As I've been working on the Libraries of Early America project I often find myself coming across probate inventories or other records which don't list the specific contents of a person's library, but do at least mention the presence of books. Seeking a way to document these, I lighted on the idea of an "Unitemized Libraries" compilation.

I've begun that compilation here, drawing on the body of probate transcriptions created as part of the Gunston Hall Plantation Probate Inventory Database (thanks to Gunston Hall for putting these online!). This encompasses more than 300 Virginia and Maryland probate inventories from 1740-1810, transcribed as PDF files. For each inventory, I've sussed out the spots where books are mentioned, and then placed the inventory either into the Unitemized Libraries page, or in the Collections to be Added section of the LEA wiki (which I like to call my permanent cure for boredom).

For the unitemized collections, I've noted the person's name and county, the inventory date(s), and the full value of the inventoried property. For each I provide a link back to the full PDF inventory (for those interested in other things than books), and then note how the books are mentioned. If the inventory is room-specific, I note where the books are located Here's a sample:

"Green, Sarah (York County, VA). Inventory taken April 1759, entered 21 May 1759. Full Inventory. Total inventory value £338/17/2.
- "A Parcel of old Books" ("In the Kitchen") - value £1, 10 shillings."

Some of the entries are amusing (including Francis Hammersley's "A Quantity of Books", valued at £2 and Jeduthan Ball's "a pretty Large quantity of Books" valued at £15), but most are just something along the lines of "a parcel of books" or "44 Volumes of Books different Sorts." A few made me laugh just because of where the books were placed in the inventory: Col. Thomas Williams' "a parcel books" (value: 40 shillings) appears on the same line as "5 sheep" (value 37 shillings, sixpence).

A couple depressed me, since it would be so fascinating to know more: Thomas Stone had a pretty hefty collection, with a "Law Library containing 530 Volumes" (value £454/1/4) plus the "Other Library containing 258 volumes bound & 121 pamphlets unbound" (value £85, 5 shillings). Henry Fitzhugh's "Catalogue of Books" was valued at £258/7/9, so it must have contained quite a number of volumes. I'm hopeful that I might be able to find out a little bit more about these larger collections, but the contents of most have been entirely lost to history.

This is just the beginning. I'll be on the lookout for additional probate transcriptions and sources to add more pre-1825 libraries (I have another few files from other states to go through already), both unitemized and those with more details. Feel free to send along potential lists, as well. In the meantime, back to cataloging Dr. John Jeffries' library - lots of interesting and fascinating medical titles in this one.


J. L. Bell said...

Dr. Joseph Gardner's library is itemized in a 1788 draft inventory in the Henry Gardner Papers at the MHS. The final inventory isn't so detailed because all the medical books went to Dr. John Homans.

JBD said...

Thanks John - added to the list!