In 2014, AAS receptionist Sally Talbot was looking for a project she could work on during slow periods on the front desk in the foyer of Antiquarian Hall. Creating a name list of the Society’s collection of loose American bookplates (not those tipped into books) was suggested by Curator of Books Elizabeth Pope. As the loose bookplates are housed in the Graphic Arts Department, I was brought in to discuss the possibility. The Society’s bookplate collection is one of the largest in the world and covers 300 years from the 1640s to the 1940s. Check out previous blog posts on our earliest bookplates and some fun Halloween-themed examples or read an overview of the collection in our newsletter, the Almanac, from Spring 2017 to learn more.
When I gave Sally a brief introduction to the 118 binders that hold the 40,000+ piece collection, she did not seem at all deterred by the scale of the undertaking. Our head of readers’ services, Kim Toney, helped Sally set up an Excel spreadsheet, and brought the first binder to the desk. The collection is arranged alphabetically by surname, and over the years that Sally worked on the project, I got into the habit of stopping by the desk to see what letter of the alphabet she was up to or to answer questions or help decipher a name. An open black binder of American ex libris became a feature on the desk during her shifts. When I posted an image of Sally working on the bookplate project on the Society’s Instagram account in the spring of 2015, some former readers commented about how amazing it was that Sally was still at it — chipping away at those binders full of tiny beautiful rectangles and squares. I recently asked Sally about her favorite plates and she recalled seeing Jack London’s ex libris and texting a picture of it to her husband who is a London fan. She also admired some of the Art Deco-influenced plates from the early twentieth century. Over the four years it took to complete the project, Sally sorted out lots of misfiling, cross-checked names to be sure she was spelling them correctly, and finally, in December of 2018, entered the 21,048th name, completing an inventory of the first sixty-eight binders, which contain the individual owner’s bookplates — fifty binders of corporate plates await Sally’s attention whenever she is ready!
The inventory is now available online via the AAS website or through our General Catalog. Sally’s dedication and tireless efforts to successfully create access to a collection that was previously only available by physically visiting AAS in Worcester can be summed up with the old adage “When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time.” AAS staff, including curators, librarians, and catalogers, have tackled a lot of enormous projects over the years, all in a quest to help researchers find and use historic material. This includes our North American Imprints Project (NAIP) catalog; a newspaper index resource called Clarence; and A New Nation Votes, which tabulates early American election returns. Today, I often find myself mentally thanking the AAS employees who came before me. They wrote out title cards for 70,000 pieces of sheet music, typed up biographical information for thousands of early American printers, or tallied individual issues of hundreds of newspapers. Some may perceive this work as monotonous or tedious, but many, like Sally Talbot, know how rewarding and frankly fascinating it can be to “eat an elephant.”