Rediscovering Forgotten History
Posted on November 1, 2012
Ann Marie Brasacchio '16
My name is Ann Marie and my job in the Archives & Special Collections is to search through the library stacks for books published before 1870. I have been examining them for damage and helping to decide whether they should be transferred to Special Collections. This work is a book-lover’s dream—it is essentially a treasure hunt through time, discovering books that, in some cases, have not been opened in decades. Over the past six weeks, I have learned a great deal about old books just by handling so many of them.
Many of the books are still in excellent condition, despite having been in circulation for a hundred and fifty years. Dozens of books that are still in circulation were published from the latter half of the 19th century, and are completely available for anyone to check out as they please.
Among the most interesting discoveries in old books are the inscriptions written by previous owners. Often these notes are poems or Bible verses, many of which seem to have little to no relation to the book’s topic. Of course, the inscriptions are always written in beautifully intricate, nearly impossible-to-read 19th century handwriting that makes me want to do all of my homework in fountain pen.
Working with these antique books has also revealed some historical subjects taught in former decades that are no longer emphasized to the same degree. When I was in tenth grade, I had to do a research project on Anne Louise Germaine Necker de Staël-Holstein, a French author, literary critic and well-known philosophe of the French Enlightenment. Her father, Jacques Necker, was a financial advisor for King Louis XVI, and her mother hosted renowned salons, so she was a familiar person within the elite intellectual circles of Revolutionary France. She published several books (the best known being her novels Corrine and Delphine), and was on speaking terms with Voltaire, Rousseau, and at one point, Napoleon Bonaparte. When working on this project, I was skeptical about her historical significance, as I had never seen Madame de Staël referenced anywhere other than in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. However, while exploring the Wheaton stacks, I found many books by or about her, most of them published in the first half of the twentieth century or earlier. This indicates that the emphasis on her character, work and influence has changed over the course of the past century, which is also true of many other subjects and historical figures. The Wheaton stacks have thousands of books containing hidden history that are easily accessible to anyone willing to take the time to look.