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On collections (February 16, 2019)

The study of historical libraries is a study of collections--and in an age dominated by decluttering, it may seem a little out of touch. On the other hand, we all know that people evaluate each other by the things we have and don't have: by our clothes, our cars, our social media posts, etc. People who study history have a particular tendency to judge each other by the knowledge we collect--the length of our bibliographies, the number of books in our office, the archives we've visited, the scholarly societies to which we belong, etc. It's a profession which allows for a certain socially acceptable hoarding.

Like most of my colleagues, I struggle with creating lists of titles to follow up on and with piles of books to read. One of my new year's resolutions, which I'm really trying to honor, is actually getting through that collection. Among other things, this means reading dozens of articles I've downloaded or received via ILL about book collecting and organizing, and that has provided me with an extension of a different collection: the database I regularly update on this web page. As of this morning, I have entered 2,706 titles, representing books owned by pre-1774 Jesuits in Bohemia, Britain, France, the Holy Roman Empire, the Italian states, the Low Countries, Portugal, and Spain. For each of those (alas, unevenly: there are still so many blank spaces), I've collected supplementary information, including biographical information on the authors, dates of foundation of the institution, other provenance data, internal markings, etc. Then, clearing out some of the many things on my to-do list has enriched the collection very substantially.

Collection, however, isn't my only goal. The more information I find and enter, the more possibilities that information has. I already have so many questions. Where were the books printed? Which institutions held which books? What is the substance of the notes in the books? Which books were most heavily annotated? What books were most widely collected by European Jesuit institutions? Who among the authors were best represented? And these are only the beginning, and only (so far) for the books which survive. At some point, we'll be able to compare the 18th-century inventories with what I've been able to reconstruct, and then we'll have a host of new questions. I hope you'll stick around for some of the answers.


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