The Case for Collecting
[right] Tom McKinney in the 1940's, an accidental collector
By Bruce McKinney
Everyone collects something. It's a strong human instinct. Most such collections are random and casual, often the initially inadvertent accumulation of seashells or whatever. Something was interesting or pretty and seemed worth retaining. My father was not a collector and again he was. Over his forty years of playing golf he rarely threw away his score cards or bag tags. In time, as clips and rubber bands gave way this ephemera would land in a drawer that became "Dad's golf stuff." It wasn't a collection and yet it was. On a rainy summer Saturday or in the dead of winter he'd occasionally reorganize the material into groups while talking about a course, round, or playing partners. Piles of more than 4 inches, the height of the drawer, were divided by place and era. In time his golf photographs emigrated from the family albums into the golf drawer. It was an inadvertent collection.
My mother would have said she wasn't a collector but she bought a lot of clothes and never seemed to throw anything away. Her sister and aunt shared her passion and locked themselves into her bedroom every few months to try things on. "I'm about five pounds away on that one." Her clothes were not only her history, they were also an element of her discipline. She would not have called her clothes a collection but I think they were.
Neither golf nor clothes ever meant much to me. My interests were history and place. I wasn't born with it but I was introduced early.
By a simple stroke of luck, that would have been arranged by my Mother, I spent an afternoon in 1956 with Bill Heidgerd, then President of the New Paltz [New York] Historical Society. He was an "old book" dealer and I ten. His book shop was his living room, his house one of the "old stones" on Huguenot Street. His books were on shelves, their fragile bindings, aged paper and fecund aroma together the single seed that sprouted into a lifelong interest in old material, their secrets and histories. He showed me some of what he had and spoke of what he dreamed of finding. His dream became mine, the pursuit of the "known to exist" but, for him, the yet to be discovered. His two elusives were pamphlet-books: The Indians by Abraham Bevier, printed in Rondout in 1846, and Tom Quick, The Indian Slayer published in Monticello in 1852. Had he lived a few more decades he would have seen, as I did, these Hudson Valley incunables arrive in the auction rooms and appear on the internet. Today I have three copies of the Bevier and two of the Tom Quick. The Bevier became a study of Rondout and today a collection of this place which today exists mostly in memory.
It might have been different for me if, instead of spending an afternoon with an old bookman, I had spent it with a mechanic. If so, today I might own some old cars or possibly their manuals. Living in a small town fifty years ago the options were fewer but almost everyone 'accumulated' something. The subject interested me and I continued.
These days many dealers are concerned if there is a new generation of collectors. There is. They come and go on AE in an often invisible way. By the time they arrive most have settled on a subject, if not a methodology, and their challenge become the pursuit of it as information and sometimes object. Just a few days ago a collector, who is an AE Monthly reader, was exploring Google Books that I've written about recently. References to an auction catalogue of his family's history led him to search for it online and it turns out to be one of about 1,600 auction catalogues I list in Books for Sale. It's the dispersal at Anderson Galleries in the 1920's of a book collection of a distant family member. It's his Tom Quick.
The Case for Collecting
Seibert copy of Bevier's The Indians
As to when and how a collecting impulse takes hold I suspect it is early and random. The collection may not be seriously pursued for decades but I believe its possibility is often established in youth. These days most people learn about themselves and life online. They spend hours rummaging sites and are exposed to millions of possibilities. Some subjects may become pursuits although they do not know it for years.
What's different today is the number of possibilities. When I was a kid my school held a hobby fair and anyone, kids or parents, could bring their postcards, period clothes, bottle tops, baseball cards or whatever for everyone to admire and ask about. No one collected history and I remember thinking it was an odd omission. That led my mother to contact Mr. Heidgerd who spent a few hours with a kid to introduce him to book collecting.
Today, were I starting again, there would be a million possibilities. Books would be one of them. How I would then move from interest to information to commitment is unclear. Five decades ago there were hundreds of possibilities, today so many more. Because there is no one right answer there must be many right answers.
Recently, in researching a story on the Gleeson Library at the University of San Francisco I ran across some gruesome statistics. Their rare book room is hardly visited. When I checked with other institutions the story was the same. The traffic that did come by was mostly researchers who are going to be equally, perhaps better served with the emerging online full text access. Then these collections will have almost no traffic.
Perhaps the answer to the question "where is the new collector" simply lies in this statement: Collectors are not born. They are nurtured and encouraged. They become collectors through exposure.
If so, then the community that is concerned that new collectors enter the field must be willing to invest their energy in introducing the next generation to the field. This is far more complex than staging a booth at a trade show and hoping new prospects come by. Such shows hope that someone else has made the crucial contribution Bill Heidgerd did for me so they can cash in on it today. That's wishful thinking.
Across the United States and around the world the field probably needs ombudsman who, in the venues available, seek to unlock the mysteries of books, manuscripts and ephemera to audiences young and old. It's a marvelous subject and skilled speakers can do this. I know. Bill Heidgerd did it for me.