Saving History One Book at a Time

Don’t you love the smell of a book? I go to used bookstores often, and not always because I plan on taking something home with me. I have always been more of a hands-on person. Sure, I can read on my Kindle, and often do – but not every book. I prefer the feel of those pages, and enjoy watching the number of pages I’ve read increase as I get closer to the end. We also collect old books, we find them in antique stores, yard sales, and other places. Most of the old books we collect can be saved from the trash heap with a little skill and the right materials, and I’ve gotten quite good at making the necessary repairs. But still, sometimes I run across one in which the pages are so brittle that they crack and break as I turn them. Those are set aside carefully, but not thrown away. I can’t bring myself to do it, nor will I ever make them into a decoupage project. It seems so wrong.

“Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”
George Santayana

Why do this?

They’re old books after all, and books don’t maintain their value unless they’re first-edition copies. Some of them are old and damaged that they’re falling apart at the seems. Of course, if I really wanted a new copy I could most likely find a reprint or ebook version, but I suppose I’m a bit of a romantic. I love those old books. Seeing the physical imprints left behind by the movable type printing presses, reminds me how difficult and expensive owning even one book once was. You were wealthy if you owned more than a few. By those standards, most Americans today are rich beyond the wildest dreams of the people who produced and purchased books in the 1800s. There is something nostalgic about wondering who must have held this book or that one. Why did they purchase it, parting with their hard-earned money, and how many people have read it since? Each book becomes its own little time-capsule, telling a unique story about its existence.

This plate, like so many others in these old books, is a piece of art all on its own.
Photo by Gail Nelson

My goal is to preserve as many of these time-capsules as I can so that my family and others may be able to read it for as long as the pages are readable, so I am careful to not cause more damage as I work with them. It seems illogical, on the surface, to save something that you could most likely replace very cheaply. But I believe that history is more than facts and figures. It is more than just the information on a page. It is our story. The story of humanity, the good, the bad, the ugly. We can’t erase it, and we can’t change what happened, nor should we even try. What we must do is learn its lessons, and teach those to our children. It’s the only way to really have a chance in not repeating the mistakes.

Holding one of these books gives one a connection to the past in a way that a reprint or digitized form would not. I can imagine that the person who purchased these treasured them, because they were sold by subscription – which means that if you didn’t buy them this way, you couldn’t go pick one up later.

Some of that history is the books that been published over the years, books that are hard to find and delicate. While a 160-year old book may not hold much in monetary value, its value is in more than just the information held within its pages. The books themselves are part of the history. I’ve talked about rescuing antique books and making them usable again by repairing them. It’s important to understand that I would not do this with a first-edition book, where the book’s monetary value is quite high in its original form, only with books that are lesser monetary value, but high value in the information they contain. What constitutes high informational value? You can judge for yourself, but I have a strong preference for literature, math, and languages, and especially history books published before 1914.

Where do we get them?

We find books for our collection in some of the most interesting ways! Recently, we obtained a box of antique books, many of them Civil War history, from one of my violin students. She and her husband were cleaning out her father-in-law’s home, and found boxes full of old books. Knowing that that I collect them, she brought the books to me. I took them home, and found prices on each one in order to give her a fair offer on those we were keeping. The price on the books we decided to keep ended up being higher than that which she had originally offered the lot to us, and in the end everyone was happy with the transaction.

An extra benefit to my student was that she also had prices on those we weren’t keeping – giving her a starting point for pricing them at an estate sale scheduled later in the month.

A special find

In this box were quite a few interesting books, and a couple of gems – really special books that had been what we call, “well-loved.” I found three leather-bound, embossed, beautiful books in desperate need of repair. Some of the signatures (signatures are bundles of pages folded in half and sewn together) were damaged, and the covers had mostly separated from the books. The leather binding on one was water-damaged, and had deteriorated to the point where it simply wasn’t recoverable. To my horror, the leather crumbled in my hands as I inspected it. The pages though, were fine with signatures intact and no missing pages, if a bit delicate. All three were fixable. In their time, these books probably cost a pretty penny.

The title of these three caught my attention and that of my husband, David, the real history buff in the family (which he really should teach): The Great Rebellion: A History of Civil War in the United States, by J.T. Headley. A gorgeous two-volume set (the third book is a duplicate of volume 2) that documents each battle and gives you a solid timeline from which to work. There are some personal stories and many first-hand accounts. When we first found them in the box and saw the publication date, it seemed impossible: One was dated 1863, and the other 1866. The second date was possible, but the first didn’t seem reasonable…the Civil war wasn’t even finished yet! As I read carefully through parts of them, I discovered the books were something unique. It seems that the writer, who was an historian and at one point a newspaper editor, decided he would document the Civil War as it happened. So, the first book covers pre-war, up to about mid-1862 and the second covers the rest to the reconstruction. It really is a blow-by-blow account of the Civil War.

Finding something like this, even though I can buy a freshly printed version, is much like finding a treasure for our family. David and the boys wait in anticipation for the repairs to be completed, and watch carefully because it is an interesting, if time-consuming, process.

At least one person who owned these must have been using them for research, because we found an unexpected bonus hiding in the books: There were a number of newspaper clippings and other pieces of paper tucked into the pages. A few were articles written who-knows-when, all I know about the date they were written is what I can glean from the content and the author’s name. They were obviously written prior to 1913 when the author died, but most likely after about 1874 when he was awarded the Medal of Honor. His name was General J. Madison Drake. We are setting these bonus treasures aside and getting a scrapbook for them. Newsprint is fairly high in acid, and some of the books’ pages are discolored from where they were stored. We don’t want to throw them away, but they cannot stay inside the books. So a scrapbook where we can keep them fairly safe seems like the best bet.

These books, by J.T. Headley, are part historian, part news, and part personal experience. A treasure for certain.

Why the focus on history?

Many historians, including David, say that if you don’t know where you are and from where you came, you can’t know where you’re headed. He draws a timeline to demonstrate the idea, it’s quick and easy: three dots with a line connecting them: One each for the past, present, and future. With that idea in mind, we place a heavy emphasis on history in our home. Our children need to know more than facts and figures. They need to know why things happened. They need to know how those events connect to what is happening today, and how they impact tomorrow.

Things like, how did world or regional wars start, why did they end, and what could have been done to prevent them? Learning about why the world’s great artists, musicians, and philosophers did what they did, and thought the way they thought is so much more fascinating than only knowing when they lived, died and created. Finding out how explorers found their way around the world, and what drove them to do what they did is as intriguing as any of the best adventure novels.

These old books, with their uniqueness and imperfections, are irreplaceable in their current form. Holding them carefully to read them makes me more aware of how tenuous our future really is, and how temporary our lives. Even these books, which were built to last (unlike most of those printed today), are falling apart and in need of attention. Keeping, repairing and reading them helps remind us that in order to create a better future, we must remember the past. Anyone can do this, it doesn’t take special training or an expensive degree. All it takes is dedication, some knowledge and proper supplies.

These old books are beautiful, with images that tell stories. It’s the stories that bring history to life, that help kids connect to the past, understand the present, and work towards a better future. Human history is at once beautiful and hideous, and it’s our responsibility to remember it all. This is why we save these old books – because in doing so we are saving history…one book at a time.

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