From the Glass Case # 1 – American Geographical Society Special Publications

From the Glass Case, Post #1 marks the beginning of a series of posts that highlight some of the treasures we have in the Glass Case at Bedlam Book Café. The books in the Glass Case represent the rarer, odder, more collectible, and/or more valuable books that have come into our possession.

Unfortunately, being sequestered away behind glass, it’s easy for these often unique and fascinating books to be overlooked. We start with three special publications of the American Geographical Society acquired at a library book sale in Springfield, Vermont in July 2018.

One of the most interesting and far flung sales we attended in the lead up to opening Bedlam, the Springfield, Vermont sale was held in an old National Guard depot about two miles down a rural road. The building was cavernous though only half or less was in use for the book sale. Oddly, the organizers saw fit to use a side room that lacked electricity and therefore lighting; a friendly book sale volunteer would helpfully shine a flashlight on the table if you needed a light. Or you could, as we did, just depend on the wan light that filtered through the couple of cobwebbed windows on the far wall.

The wan light room held tables of poetry, “literature”, cookbooks, and art, all subjects that we seek out, so we spent a good deal of time in that room. In the outer room, the cavernous warehouse wing, were all the other subjects, long tables of hardcover fiction, tables of history, science, reference, crafts, puzzles, kid’s books, and on and on. It was in the big room that I plucked these three volumes from a box under one of the tables.

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One way of quickly adjudicating whether a book is substantive and possibly of value, regardless of its subject matter, is by quickly assessing how well made it is. Is the paper cheap? Is the spine glued or sewn? Does it ‘feel’ cheap or does it have heft? Are there any distinguishing features that might suggest care in its production such as tipped-in illustrations, fold out maps, gilt lettering?

You can generally make a spot assessment in the heat of the moment; later, when sorting through the books you’ve amassed, you can examine them more closely and decide whether each is worth keeping. With these three volumes, I didn’t need to reconsider them during the sorting phase; as soon as I’d grabbed them I knew they were volumes of substance, of character, and that they surely held contents of interest to scholars, researchers, possibly collectors. How did I know this?

The books’ feel. They’re solidly produced with quality materials. They have sewn bindings. And they are heavy, each one easily a couple pounds. No dust jackets, they look like library books but are distinguished by the gold gilt lettering on the spine and book cover.

And the titles were give-aways too. When you find a hefty book finely made with a title like “The Fiord Region of East Greenland” or “The Discovery of the Amazon: According to the Account of Friar Gaspar De Carvajal and Other Documents”, you can be pretty sure that it will be of value to someone out there, some scholar, some PhD candidate, some collector of exploration books.

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Each of these volumes, when held and examined, reveals itself to be a singularly interesting and esoteric work of scholarship, of interest for its contents as well as its austere but exacting design. And two of these three volumes are signed by the volumes’ author or editor. For example, on the front end page of “The Discovery of the Amazon,” the book’s editor W. L. G. Joerg has provided an inscription in Portuguese (with a typed translation) to a Mr. George Grady (or Brady?).

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As it turns out, the American Geographical Society goes back to 1851. From the Way Back Machine (http://amergeog.org/mission.htm):

“Established in 1851, the American Geographical Society is the oldest professional geographical organization in the United States. It is recognized world-wide as a pioneer in geographical research and education.

The mission of the American Geographical Society is to link business, professional, and scholarly worlds in the creation and application of geographical knowledge and techniques to address economic, social, and environmental problems. The Society’s work serves to increase geographical knowledge and the recognition of its importance in the contemporary world.”

I have yet to find out more about the AGS’ “Special Publications” of which these three are numbers 14, 17, and 18 (1932, 1934, and 1935 respectively). If anyone reading this post knows more about the history of these publications, please contact us.

NOTE: If interested in these volumes, come into Bedlam Book Café and ask
to see them. They are, as noted, treasures in the Glass Case.

http://www.amergeog.org/Archives/Hiding-in-the-Archives.pdf

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