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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

Oldest Book in the Library

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, September 26, 2010

What is the oldest book in the library’s collection?


I had to think about that question, and frankly, I do not remember ever being asked the question before.


After much thought, and a computer catalog search, I think the oldest book in our collection is “A History of the United States of America” by Rev. Charles A. Goodrich.


It was published in Hartford by the D.F. Robinson & Co., in 1829, and confirmed as a publication made in Connecticut by Charles A. Ingersoll, the Clerk for that state.


The little book was in a box of donations many years ago, and resides in my shelf of odds and ends in the Director’s Office.


The poor little book is a school textbook, outlining American history from 1492 to its 1829 publication.


I say “poor” because it appears that many children learned from the book, and left their water stains and finger marks on nearly every page.


All things considered, it is in fair condition with the rag stock paper and its rough surface holding up well to its 180 year lifespan.


The cover is leather, covered with scrapes from being banged around in a schoolhouse.


Inside the front cover written in ink pen, it states, “Lot Colvin’s Y. 1831” referring perhaps to the year of original purchase.  I carefully removed some 20th century pencil scribbling years ago.


The book today has little use, and little value due to its condition and the fact that many schools must have used this title.


There are other school books on the same shelf, some McGuffey Readers found from time to time, none worth any value due to condition and the fact that only the first McGuffeys have any real value.


Academic libraries would probably chuckle at our old books, as most are adorned with great archival collections that can be handled only with white gloves.


Another “old” book is “History of the State of Rhode Island”, a 6 volume set published in 1859.  It is unique as it belonged to the former “City Library Association of Steubenville” which became part of the Carnegie Library in 1899.


The problem is that according to the original catalog book, we only owned 3 of the 6 volumes of the set, even in 1899.  A real gap in Rhode Island history.


Looking at today’s collection of books, the standard assumption is that a hardbound book in a public library collection will last through 30 readings before it needs some physical attention.


Some binding glue, a new mylar book jacket, some book cleaner will extend the life of a library book to 100 uses and beyond.


At one time, a “library binding” might allow 500 uses of a book, but those days are now past.  Library bindings, rebinding, and re-stitching are a thing of the past.


Paperback books can typically manage a decade in a library collection before the wood pulp paper quality starts to deteriorate beyond common usage.


My point is that a public library collection is constantly changing, with some books retiring from usage every year.  Add a dip-in-the-bathtub and a chew from the puppy, and a book’s life can suddenly end.


And recycled paper reappears in the binding block of a new book, and a book is reborn.


Wonder what that DVD will be like in 180 years?