Saturday, September 3, 2011

Personal Library as Family History

When beginning my genealogy journey, my intent was to discover the stories of my ancestors, not just collect facts about them. I guess it was always the thrill of the story hunt that fueled the fires, so to speak. When approaching genealogy in this manner, your collection of information tidbits may be handled differently. Instead of simply asking others about a list of facts, you also ask about their interests/passions and feelings associated with such. However, once loved ones are already gone, we must look to their personal belongings to tell more of the story. Now, I understand how hard this is for many of our ancestors. After a few generations, maybe even after one, belongings scatter, and unless someone has kept a story with the item, they lose their "voice". One group of belongings can always tell a story if kept together or even if separated, and if the original owner's identity is attached to said group/item, you can recover a treasure trove of information. I am, of course, referring to the personal library.

As a librarian, I've always been cognizant of the books people display in their homes. It immediately tells me a little bit about what is important to them, and a bit of insight can be very useful. Not everyone owns significant book collections, but almost every household has a little collection of some sort. We are a nation of readers, and books have always been a symbol of education and learning - something we have held to great esteem over the centuries. Therefore, a small collection of books is usually valued, no matter how humble the circumstances.

A few years ago, my grandmother was complaining about the "clutter" she had in her basement. Now, she was not ready to get rid of any of her "clutter". She was referring to the "clutter" of others. My grandparents on my fathers side were definitely magpies.....they collected everything. Their collection tells decades of stories, just by scanning what they have - a museum to their life, and it is quite fascinating. The "clutter" grandma was complaining about was a large collection of books that filled a large bookcase at the bottom of the stairs. She was ready to get rid of these because they were a collection from three generations ago. The books had belonged to my 2nd great-grandfather, Horace Schilling from Columbus, Ohio. This man would have been her husband's grandfather, therefore, a branch of the family that she was no longer relating to. Her solution was for me "the librarian" to haul these books out of her house. Well, ummm, I wasn't quite ready for anything like that, since, there were at least a couple hundred books, maybe more, and they were very dusty and dirty. Besides, as much as my bibliophile radar was pinging off a storm, I knew I lived in a very small house that would not accommodate such a collection.....but I took the invitation as a beginning step, and told her I would take a few at a time.

Grandpa described his grandfather Horace as a man who "loved to read". He remembered that Horace loved to take his little rocking chair outside onto the brick walkway in front of his house and read a book. It was no surprise then, when I made my way through his collection that I found his very organized, typed "bookplates". They are very homemade, but charming. In a way, they are also somewhat of a primary source. After seeing the family name spelled various ways in the census and other records, and predominantly with no "c", this typed version in all of his books could be considered "from the horses mouth" with his own hand/typewriter. He had books that numbered up over 200, so he must have been a voracious reader. I very much like to think that he would  have approved of having a librarian for a great great granddaughter, and every time I hold one of his books, I like to think of him out there in his little rocking chair, enjoying this title so many years ago.

As I started pulling some titles that looked interesting, I was noticing that some were resonating with past information and mysteries that we had heard about over the years. For instance, there was a book about pharmacy....all sorts of chemical compounds that would help in relieving medical conditions. Inside the front cover, was the signature: Horace Schilling, V.S. I smiled at this one because my grandfather had once told me that after retirement from the railroad, grandpa Horace was a sort of jack-of-all-trades, with one of his side professions being something of a local/amateur veterinarian. He remembered that grandma Schilling completely disapproved of this "hobby" because he wouldn't take payment for his services.

Another couple of titles gave me more clues about a family mystery: White Fang and The Official Guide to the Klondyke Country and Gold Fields of Alaska. One of our family photo albums is a combination album. I'm pretty sure it was my great grandmother Ruth, Horace's daughter, that put this album together. It contains photos from both sides of the Schilling/Daniels families. Unfortunately, not everything is labeled, and many times I am unsure which side of the family the photos come from. There are several large photos scattered throughout the album that are clearly from the Alaska/Klondike region.....from around the turn of the century. They are an amazing collection, and I want to investigate further, but have been very uncertain about which side of the family to research for more information. With these two titles being in grandpa Horace's collection, it points me in a Schilling direction, and to the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1800s.

Overall, there are other things to be gleaned from Horace's collection. He enjoyed humor, fiction, military stories, hunting stories, lots of fiction, and general history books. Which brings me to the recommendation to take a look at some of your family members' collections. If I thought back, I know my grandfather Daniels collection would consist of WWII, Civil War and Railroad titles, which are a pretty close match to the interests of my own father. My grandfather Watts on my mother's side consisted of religious, farming and western titles - he loved Zane Grey. So think about your own books. If someone looked at your collection, what would they learn about you? Mine would consist of the following subjects: history, genealogy, herbs/gardening, religious, Smoky Mountains, Antique collecting, art/exhibits, children's picture books, Italy, and random antique editions that I found in book stores.

So while you're out there, gathering your family history, don't forget about the books! They tell another story besides the one between their covers. Re-connect with your ancestors by reading one of these old titles, and don't forget to flip through the pages! People stuck all sorts of sentimental little keepsakes inside for safe keeping! Or even chose to record the family history in the most unusual places - like my grandmother Ruth did as a young girl. Also, another family history tip: if the collection is too large to keep together, dispersal of a family library is a way to let everyone in the family have a piece of the historical pie. With a collection of this size, there would be one or two titles that would particularly appeal to the interests of each descendant. For instance, I pulled one for my brother because it was about the Boy Scouts, since he had belonged as a youth. If the subjects vary a lot, each person can take a title that helps them relate in a personal manner to the ancestor that came before them.
The Library:

My days among the dead are pass'd;
Around me I behold,
Where'er these casual eyes are cast,
The mighty minds of old;
My never-failing friends are they
With whom I converse night and day.

With them I take delight in weal,
And seek relief in woe;
And while I understand and feel
How much to them I owe,
My cheeks have often been bedew'd
With tears of thoughtful gratitude.

By: Robert Southey
From one of the books in my personal collection: A Thousand and One Gems of English and American Poetry, 1884

2 comments:

Gini said...

Cheri,
I love this post. Books have always been very important in our family. My mom, myself, my daughter and now my granddaughter are book worms! My daughter would come home from school, go straight to her room and read all afternoon! She is an adult now and still loves to read.

I am getting ready to inherit many of my late mom's books. She loved memoir's and German history along with classical historical and modern day poetry. I have always wanted to create one of the rooms in my home into a library. Thanks for this post, it reminded me about our love for books and what they say about us.

Cheri Daniels said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed this post! I think our ancestors leave many clues as to their personalities and interests....books being one of the best clues....and one of the most fun to investigate - especially for bibliophiles such as ourselves :-)

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