Serpents in the Stacks

Serpents Book Illustration

As you know, when I was cleaning the Special Collections books, I came across all manner of interesting books. This one in particular I was asked to keep an eye out for having been a favorite of a dear MMA friend. Happily, I found it!
It seems a little unusual to have but I can understand why we were given it. It’s from 1742. Titled An Essay Towards a Natural History of Serpents in Two Parts it was written by Charles Owen. Frankly, it is a book that might have a hard time finding a home but from a historian’s and even a scientist’s perspective it can be helpful with learning more about the worship of serpents, the belief in them, and how actual snakes and other invertebrates might spawn (sorry) tails (sorry again! I can’t help it!) of serpents. I have provided you with the title page and one of the copper engravings.Serpents Book Title Page dated 1742


AND, AND!  A Happy Birthday to Alice Paul.  Born a Quaker, she was a mover and shaker in the rights for women.  Check out today’s “Google Doodle.”

Snead and Company: Builder of the MMA Library Wing, 1933

Natco AdIn the early 1930s, the Maria Mitchell Association realized that it needed more room for its Library. The William Mitchell Schoolhouse (the shingled portion of the Library that opened as such in 1920) was overwhelmed with the book collections and the Maria Mitchell Papers, Mitchell Family Papers, and Maria Mitchell’s own books and those of her family. All needed better and more secure space. So, in the midst of the Great Depression, they began the process of planning and fundraising for an addition that would be fireproof and secure. This was no small feat at this time and letters in the MMA Archives discuss that they were knowingly taking on such a project when people were facing economic hardship. They feared they would struggle to raise the funds but knew that this was very much needed for the organization. They also knew it would be of great benefit to islanders and visitors alike. Money came from far and wide, from small amounts to fairly large amounts.

After putting the new Fireproof Wing (Wing) out to bid with many separate bids for the different components, the MMA heard from Snead and Company of New Jersey, a company well-known for the state-of-the-art library stacks and libraries that it created. The Snead and Company cast iron book stacks were found all over the world and even closer to home at the likes of Harvard and the Washington, DC Public Library. Snead and Co. would go on to “revolutionize and standardize” library book stacks. They would also develop a lighting system and the first compact shelving. Their shelving could be easily modified and they helped to advocate for open stacks beginning in the 1930s. MMA made the decision to use Snead and Company with local contractors working with Snead to complete the project from foundation to dry wells to paint and stucco.

Because of its decision, MMA was the recipient of state-of-the-art library stacks and the new Snead lighting system. Snead oversaw all of the building of the Wing, under the direction of well-respected architect Alfred Shurrocks who lived up the street, was a friend to the MMA, and was married to a Mitchell family descendant! In building the Wing, they utilized the NatCo Double Shell Load Bearing Tile, a wall system of terracotta tiles that is fireproof and exceptionally strong. Just take a look at one of their advertisements that I found.

As MMA works towards the conservation of the exterior of the MMA Library and Wing, funded by the Community Preservation Act, and the re-use of the interior into a lab/classroom and state-of-the-art natural science collections storage, we will be working within the framework of the building, continuing to utilize the Snead stacks for storage. I have already written about the conservation of the roof tiles last fall, so stay tuned for reports on upcoming work which includes the beginning of work on the stucco, steel, and terracotta tiles this spring.


The Power of Books

A week or so ago, I received an email from a professional organization with a link to an animated short film that was nominated for an Academy Award (and now has won for Best Animated Short Film!). I found it compelling and appropriate to share here based on my work in a historic house museum and in archives and special collections. It also calls to me because I lived in New Orleans for several years before Hurricane Katrina and I have had several professional acquaintances who have gone to the city since the storm to assist with historic preservation. The film is called “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.” Gee, do you think his last name has some meaning?

Take a look at it – It’s uplifting and sad, it made me cry and it gave me the chills. I am obviously “pro books” – I work with Special Collections and Archives too in addition to my work as a historic house museum curator. You cannot smell the pages of an iBook or on your computer. You cannot wonder where the iBook has been or who has touched it. There aren’t notations on the pages from previous readers or flowers or notes tucked into the pages from years, decades, or centuries ago. Oh, and does an iBook have hand-painted plates?

Books are alive – they come alive as you read, as you turn from page to page. This is illustrated in the film when Mr. Lessmore repair a book – he extends the lives of the books and protects them. In his sharing of books with others – it brings the people back to life, lifts their spirits and imaginations, it gives them a friend. And most importantly, the film underscores the fact that we are just the caregivers – whether it be a book, an artifact, a historic house – we are not the owners. These things, these books, will live on long beyond us and someone new will come to take our place and care for these objects so that others might learn from them. I think this film, in just a very short twelve minutes or so, sums up the importance of books in our lives and their importance for the future.