In the fall of 2007, I returned from lunch to find a Post-it note on my office door, asking me to call David Nasaw, a distinguished history professor at the Graduate Center. Nasaw was a friend and colleague of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who had died the previous February. The famed historian and advisor to President John F. Kennedy, Schlesinger was true bibliophile, or perhaps a biblioholic, and his vast collection of books had been moved from his apartments in New York City to a bookseller’s storage in Boston. The bookseller, contacted by Schlesinger’s wife, cleared the books out of the apartments, selected the rare or valuable volumes, and boxed and stored the rest. Nasaw wanted to know if the Mina Rees Library would take these books. He was also clearing out Schlesinger’s office at the Graduate Center, offering the books to graduate students. I asked if I could look over the books, and my colleague Mike Handis and I went through them, including multiple copies of books by Schlesinger. We took what we did not already own and left the rest for the students to go through.
photo by Angela Sidman
The adventure really began when I contacted the bookseller, who was eager to dispose of the 400 boxes. I wanted to see the condition of the boxes, having been the recipient of some moldy, deteriorating books in a previous donation. I met the bookseller and looked at and photographed some of the boxes. They appeared to be clean, and the sample books I checked were in good condition, so we agreed on a plan for him to load a truck and ship the boxes back to Manhattan. This 200-mile trip took many turns before the boxes finally arrived at the library in January 2008. The bookseller estimated the collection at 13,000 volumes. In the end, we received 5,809 hardbacks and 3,691 paperbacks, an astounding number of books have been owned by one man.
As I later learned, there had been a fire at some point in one of the apartments, and some of the books were dirty, water stained, warped, or moldy and were immediately discarded. There was also a tremendous number of old and brittle mass-market paperbacks, which could only be sold at the library’s book sale or discarded.
My student assistant and I, using an empty office, began to unpack the boxes and search our catalog to see what we owned. I invited CUNY colleagues three times to select from what we did not add to our collection. We sent over 100 boxes to Better World Books and still have over 300 volumes with his signature that are awaiting dispensation.
This collection should have been inventoried before it was transferred to us because we have neither the staff nor the space for such a project. I did, however, pull out some books where he had made notations and even found letters and postcards which I will give to the New York Public Library since it acquired his papers. There are quite a number of nineteenth-century books, including children’s titles, which belonged to Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., also a prominent historian, with bookplates.
In March, the Chronicle of Higher Education sent a photographer to take pictures of me with the mountains of boxes. After several phone interviews, my picture appeared, in color, with the April 4 Chronicle article. Fearing massive repercussions, I heard from only two people concerned that the boxes had not been inventoried and kept as Schlesinger’s collection. An amusing communication came from LibraryThing whose “historical consultant” wanted to know if we had a list of titles that “would allow LT users to see, for example, what books they shared with Schlesinger, or, perhaps, what books he shared with Thomas Jefferson, Susan B. Anthony or Sylvia Plath.”
In May, a photographer was sent by the vice-chancellor’s office for a fall CUNY publication. We had to overcome a multitude of problems, such as ladders and power, because the vice-chancellor envisioned me standing and literally surrounded by towers of boxes. Finally, standing on a ladder we had to beg from facilities by invoking the vice-chancellor, the photographer shot the photo looking down at me in the middle of the towers of boxes.
It was a time-consuming project, done almost single-handedly by my student assistant, Eduardo Dabdoub-Lopez. The last of the 400 boxes was unpacked on July 29, 2008. Among the books were hundreds of titles about World War II, Hitler, Roosevelt, Stalin, and the Kennedys. There were multiple copies of all the books Schlesinger wrote, even translations in Italian and Japanese. Beyond history, there were books on philosophy, literature, and film. His several thousand books reflect an intellectual life of the twentieth century.
I was able to contact Schlesinger’s son, who lives with his mother (Schlesinger’s first wife) in Cambridge. He came to New York to select about six cartons which I shipped to him. (These are very well-traveled books.) He called his brother who lives in New York and came to the library to select a few books.
In the end, we had a big book sale. Although we sold hundreds of books to students and faculty, there are still several hundred left. The best part is that the books may end up in school libraries with no books on American history and politics, and Schlesinger’s books will, in the end, be used to teach what he clearly loved.
Jane Fitzpatrick (Graduate Center)