What is a Treasure?
The advent of a new millennium seems an auspicious time for a library to take stock of its collections. “Treasures of Lauinger Library” presents a significant number of those books, manuscripts, and works of art which demonstrate, visually and intellectually, what the library has attempted to do, and what it does, in bringing together, preserving, and making available for research at Georgetown University some portion of the historical record.
It is safe to say that all libraries of a certain age have treasures, and it is perhaps equally safe to say that by their treasures ye shall know them. A library’s roster of special items will inevitably tell the observer a good deal about the library itself, and this is not at all a bad thing. In fact, the library which sets about marshaling a roster of its treasures for an exhibit such as this will, in the process, perhaps develop a better understanding of its own intrinsic character. Were different staff members than the curator of this exhibit to develop lists of Lauinger Library’s bibliophilic treasures, their lists would certainly differ, but only up to a point. The history of collecting at Georgetown is permanently marked by some of the books, manuscripts, and artwork that have come to the university since its founding, and if some of these are perhaps the chiefest treasures, they also serve as objective pointers to whatever further selections might be thought of as expressing individual or curatorial preferences.
Georgetown is, first and foremost, a Catholic and Jesuit institution, and while other libraries do in fact own copies of the first edition of the Ratio studiorum or autographs of St. Ignatius Loyola, these items have a central importance to John Carroll’s academy on the banks of the Potomac that they might well not have elsewhere. Equally, Georgetown is an American university, dating its foundation, like the federal government, from 1789; a July, 1776, broadside printing of the Declaration of Independence, a first edition of The Federalist, and a holograph manuscript of The Star-Spangled Banner occupy thereby obvious places of honor. Yet Georgetown is an American university in Washington, D.C., and thus it seems only natural that it should provide a home to volumes from the libraries of Thomas Jefferson and Charles Carroll of Carrollton, or to one remarkable volume presented by the stepson of George Washington on the occasion of his assisting at an early Georgetown commencement. Equally too, Georgetown’s philosophical and educational outlook is resolutely international; that being the case, why not, therefore, should items printed in China and Japan or the manuscript of an Italian writer make “the list?” And Georgetown is itself: what more reason should be needed to include John Carroll’s founding documents, the Proposals and fund-raising letter that antedate the foundation of the university itself?
But even when the relevancy of an item points to appropriate holding by a wider group of institutions than Georgetown (and Georgetown can hardly claim unique rights to all of the items in the preceding paragraph), there are considerations that make some items speak their virtues more clearly, and of these the most important is clearly provenance. A rapid look through the list that follows shows multiple entries from a few sources: the gifts of Mrs. Nicholas F. Brady, who placed at Georgetown the small collection of English literary highspots that her husband formed shortly before his death; the items which in their time were treasures at the University of Detroit; the splendid gifts made by autograph dealer Mary Benjamin in honor of Father Francis X. Talbot, S.J.; and paramount even to these the very extensive library and manuscript collection formed by American Catholic historian John Gilmary Shea, partly the gift of his widow and daughter. More than a single item could have been selected from the library numbering nearly 2,000 volumes formed by Father Thomas C. Levins (1789-1843), Georgetown’s first officially designated librarian. Eric Menke’s many donations might have yielded more than a single print, and by the same token the rich collection of musical manuscripts formed by Georgetown alumnus Leon Robbin, were it all currently at Georgetown, would certainly be represented by more than a single selection. These items, too, are near the heart of what Georgetown is or means to be.
Those other primary considerations, which include age, beauty, uniqueness, that perhaps most relative of all terms “importance,” and all the other characteristics that gladden the hearts of both dealers and librarians, inevitably play their parts as well. Thus along with European incunabula we include an 8th century Japanese printed prayer scroll commissioned by the Empress Shotoku; books like Shaw’sPicturesque Views of American Scenery, better known for their illustrations than for their text; items like the books by Boswell, Franklin, and Thoreau, whose human and historical associations single them out from the rest of the press runs of which they were part; and items like the First Folio, the texts by Galileo, Kepler, Locke, and Newton, the proof copy of the Treaty of Versailles, and The Woman’s Bible, which express, in what seems to us the clearest possible way, that part of the historical experience which we have been enabled to make our own, whether in the hard or soft sciences, or literature, or the arts. Each makes its own claim to our attention, and each, too, is one of Georgetown’s “treasures.”
The library has never enjoyed an opulent budget for acquisitions, so it should come as no surprise that only 16 of the items in the exhibit can be proven to be purchases-and of these eight came with the library of John Gilmary Shea, which was sold to Georgetown in 1892 at an absurdly low price. But fully half of the items on display came as the result of gifts, from George Washington Parke Custis’s presentation of the family copy of Catesby’s Natural History in 1833 to Mrs. Thomas M. Evans’s donation of the Willem Vrelant illuminated manuscript earlier this year. To all these donors the library owes a considerable debt of gratitude.
But one final observation is certainly in order, regarding the dates at which various items entered the library’s collections. Georgetown began as a very small academy, then college: hard evidence, if not always elaborate records of provenance, tell us that three of the items in the exhibit were certainly here before 1836, and that another three certainly arrived between that date and 1868. The next century saw 30 items arrive (including eight among Shea’s books and manuscripts). But since 1970, when the library began actively to collect rare books and manuscripts, another 20 have been added, including several of both the oldest and most recent items in terms of their individual dates of creation. The library is five years into its third century as the new millennium opens; the prospect of adding additional treasures in the years ahead, to put it very mildly indeed, does not displease.
George M. Barringer