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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.

Two Old Books at the Library

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, October 11, 2015

As a librarian, I receive interesting questions; and occasionally something arrives at the library that proves to be as interesting as those questions.


Recently, a gentleman from Michigan contacted our library and wondered if he would send us “two old books” that appeared to have a connection to our area.


The books arrived carefully wrapped and packaged to avoid damage, and the following note was in the box:


“Here are the books regarding which I corresponded with you.  They are a gift to your library, and you may do with them as you see fit.  Thank you for taking them, I have a great distaste for throwing away books, especially antiquarian books.”


Inside were the two “old books,” which he had acquired some years ago.  He told us that he loves old books, but has so many that he must “find homes for some of them to reduce his collection.”


Each of the books was placed in their own box, and written in an ink pen on the lid of each box was the known history of each particular item.  For the past 90 years, the books had been together, owned by the same person.  Now the detective works begins.


The first book is titled “An Abridgement of Ainsworth’s Dictionary, English and Latin, Designed for the Use of Schools,” by Thomas Morell, D.D.  Published by Hunt & Son of Philadelphia, the book has no publication date, but a check of academic libraries’ catalogs showed an estimated publication date of 1857.


The book is in “fair” condition.  I used by book tools to remove some packaging tape that had been applied to the interior hinge, and brushed dirt from the front flaps.  The clue of a local connection was written in the front of this book, “Rezin B. Johnson, Grove Academy, Steubenville, Ohio.”


The box lid for this book had the additional information, “Used by Rezin Beall Johnson and later by his son Hubert Rex Johnson, born 1858.  Preserved as one of the popular school books of the 1850s and earlier and a family relic.  To remove the book, remove lid, invert the box on one hand and lift box off the book.”


Obviously, Rezin Johnson had used this as a schoolbook at the Grove Academy, and passed it along to his son.  Our Local History Department found that Rezin Johnson (1833-1903) died in Richmond, and his son Hubert Rex Johnson (1858-1945) became a Presbyterian Minister in 1886 and served churches in Western Pennsylvania and D.C. and is buried in Greensburg, Pa.


Rev. Johnson owned the book until his death, as well as the second book, “Interest in Christ” by Rev. W. Guthery, which may be as old as 1750.  That book is in poor condition, completely detached from its text block and missing several pages.


The lid of its box states, “This book was presented to Hubert Rex Johnson, July 21, 1921 by Mrs. A.F. Walker of Tarentum, Pa. [where Rev. Johnson had a church] and Mrs. Walker received it from her uncle Samuel McIntire of Irwin, Pa.


She then describes its condition in 1921 and everything she knew about the book, and it is safe to say that the book has not gotten any worse in the past 90 years.


Further research by Erica Grubbs, Genealogy Librarian in our Local History Department found that the Johnson are descended from one of Jefferson County’s early citizens and a Revolutionary War veteran named Richard Johnson (1746-1818) who is buried in the Two Ridges Cemetery.


It is interesting that information about Richard Johnson varies with the source, but he served in both the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, and came to the area in 1799 settling on what was later known as the Bustard Farm.


It is amazing that these two books made their way to Michigan and back to our area, and the fact that they have survived!  The boxes have helped their condition,


And imagine that in 1921 when Mrs. Walker found the boxes and affixed the paper and used an ink pen to carefully write everything she knew about each book, and EVEN wrote instructions on how to open the lid of the box.


The final chapter was a caring man in Michigan who loves antiquarian books and wanted to get them back to their “home base.”


Are the books worth anything?  Sadly no, the one is in such poor condition and antiquarian bookstores list the title as commonly available.  The school text book was so common that many copies have survived and are offered for sale.


These books will be in the glass display case at our Schiappa Branch Library for a few weeks so you can enjoy them as well, before going into our archival collection.