The Cult Following of Charles Bukowski


Charles Bukowski instills a strong response in many of those who read his poetry, novels, nonfiction and short stories. Readers are either impressed by his openness and honesty or repulsed by his abrupt and vulgar approach to sexuality, drugs and the seedy aspects of low living. Here in California I have heard more references to Bukowski than anywhere else in the world! That is, of course, since he spent much of his life living in California, writing about Los Angeles, and even passed away in San Pedro in 1994. But let’s not focus on his death! This blog honors his birth and his writing, not his passing. 

bukowski2Heinrich Karl Bukowski was born on August 16th, 1920 in Germany. His father, a member of the U.S. Army that remained in Germany after WWI, and his mother brought him to the United States at the tender age of two. Bukowski was a slight child with a poor complexion, often bullied by his peers and beaten by his father who believed in a heavy hand when correcting his child’s faults. 

Despite an uneasy beginning, Bukowski grew and realized from an early age his interest lay in the written word. (And in alcohol – it is reported that he first tasted wine at age 13 in a friend’s father’s wine cellar and thought it was wonderful, stating “It was magic… Why hadn’t someone told me?”) At 19 Bukowski enrolled in Los Angeles City College, but dropped out shortly thereafter at the start of WWII to move to New York and pursue writing full-time. Unfortunately these dreams were not to be realized at this time, as he spent 6 years being rejected from publishers. In 1946 he decided to give up his dreams of writing and spent ten years drinking and doing drugs on a spree of debauchery and depravity across the United States, ending up in Los Angeles in the late 1950s near death. Bukowski began to write once again, focusing on poetry as his means of expression. He began by getting published in underground papers and magazines, and kept up a hard lifestyle – gaining a reputation as a poet with a dark side. Unsurprisingly, “the main character in his poems and short stories, which are largely autobiographical, is usually a down-and-out writer [Henry Chinaski] who spends his time working at marginal jobs (and getting fired from them), getting drunk and making love with a succession of bimbos and floozies” (Ciottii/Poetry Foundation). Bukowski used his own life for inspiration in his work, and in that respect the lifestyle he chose with drugs, drinking, prostitutes and unsavory living was helpful to his writing career! 

bukowski4In 1959 Bukowski (or Hank, as he was to his friends) published his first book of poetry, Flower, Fish and Bestial Wail, truly establishing himself as a poet, and also dealing with such simple themes as abandonment and desolation in a sad world where all are alone. (No big deal.) He showed his writing style that had changed little but perhaps in the more modern times was more easily accepted – he had a “crisp, hard voice; an excellent ear and eye for measuring out the lengths of lines; and an avoidance of metaphor where a lively anecdote will do the same dramatic work” (Ken Tucker). He continued to publish books of poetry in the upcoming decades, producing a staggering number of books of poetry, as well as those of prose and novels. The subjects of his work remained the same – he lived the life of the poor and the down-trodden, associating himself with drinking, drugs, music, violence, prostitution and gambling. According to Adam Kirsch, Bukowski described his own readership as “the defeated, the demented and the damned.” His first book of short stories was published in 1972 and entitled Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness. In general, his works were often offensive, violent and sordid, but did a few amazing things… brought awareness to the lives of the down-and-out and opened up the literary world to an entirely different style of writing. 

Our holding of 'the reading - Vallejo - virgins' by Bukowski - a 1st printing circa 1979.

Our holding of ‘the reading – Vallejo – virgins’ by Bukowski – a 1st printing circa 1979.

Bukowski didn’t just write full-time, however – he was a post office clerk for over a decade in the 1960s in California. He performed readings of his work internationally and published until his dying day. He was known as the “laureate of American lowlife” – perhaps why he drew such a cult following and is still popular today. Bukowski did what many would not even attempt – he described, in detail, the life of those no one wished to live as. He brought attention and interest to the group of people he felt most at ease with. His posthumous work has been almost as prolific as the works published during his lifetime! At least 25 volumes of his poetry, nonfiction and short story collections have been published since his death alone, and one can assume there are more works out there just waiting to be brought to light.



That Other Printer You Ought To Know

William Caxton

Every single person reading this blog would (I hope) know the name “Gutenberg.” Right? Now here’s another major name in the printing world, perhaps not known by everyone… William Caxton. Maybe you know him, maybe you don’t. We aren’t here to judge your knowledge of the printing business. We’re just here to educate you! So sit back, relax, and learn something new.

caxton3William Caxton was born sometime during the years 1415-1424, which scholars have appropriated since his apprenticeship fees were paid in 1438. He grew up and was educated in the district of Kent, before leaving for London to be apprentice to Robert Large, a wealthy London dealer or luxury goods. Caxton made trips to Bruge after the death of Large in 1441, and eventually settled there in 1453. He was successful in his business as a merchant, and after becoming governor of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London he became a member of the household of Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy and sister to two Kings of England! This was a fortuitous time in Caxton’s life, as due to his international travels for the Duchess’ household he observed the brand new printing press business in Germany (as the Gutenberg press had began in 1440) and immediately set up his own printing press in Bruge and within a few years produced the first book known to be printed in English, published in 1473 Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye (“A Collection of the Histories of Troy” ) – a book of French courtly love translated by Caxton himself. (Fun antiquarian book world fact: only 18 copies of this printing still exist [kind of shocking there are even 18], and one sold by the Duke of Northumberland in 2014 and fetched over 1 million GBP.)

caxton4After his success with the printing in Bruge, Caxton brought his art back to England in 1476 and set up the country’s first ever press in a section of the Westminster Abbey Church. The first book printed in England itself was an edition of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Other early titles printed by Caxton included Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophres translated by the king’s brother in law Earl Rivers, and Caxton’s own translations of the Golden Legend in 1483 and The Book of the Knight in the Tower. Caxton also printed the first ever English translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as well as Le Morte d’Arthur.

[As you can probably already tell, if you didn't know the name Caxton that is:

a) shocking

b) embarrassing

c) all of the above

but in all reality, he is not as spoken of as Johannes Gutenberg and his press. So yes, Gutenberg is given big props for developing the early European movable type system, but why isn't Caxton's name also taught in schools?!]

caxton1Caxton’s death is recognized as taking place in 1491 or 1492, as that is when his work stopped being produced. He was succeeded by his Dutch employee Wynkyn de Worde, who is recognized for moving the printing of books in English away from an excitement enjoyed by the aristocrazy and nobility and toward the idea of printing for the masses. De Worde is often known as “England’s first typographer” and printed over 400 books in over 800 editions. Caxton, god bless him, printed 108 books of 87 different titles. However, Caxton did much of his translating himself, working on an honest desire to provide the best translation possible to his customers. Despite the fact that de Worde is known for standardizing the English language (as there were, at that time, so many different dialects and different spellings that it was often difficult to keep track), Caxton is absolutely also honored for beginning this process and though printing books of no remarkable or significant beauty, then at least for beginning the process of printing books in English at all!


Some Top Literary Blogs for Bibliophiles and Antiquarian Maniacs (Like Us)

As a literary blogger myself, I like to follow quite a few blogs online that are written by like-minded individuals. The internet is a wonderful thing, is it not? Perhaps we can see both the good and the bad when it comes to online reading. You can find all the research in the world, but also are privvy to the intimate daily thoughts of Donald Trump through Twitter. You can read The Documents of the Hexateuch written in 1893 on Google Books, and then in less than ten degrees of separation find some hateful and badly written webpages on the damnation of both religious and anti-religious folk. Why am I telling you all this, you may very well ask?

The only blogs that we at Tavistock Books can be responsible for are the ones that are published on (AKA the best blog in the world)! So no matter where I direct you to, where we might find inspiration or what you may read online… do us a favor and read everything (even this) with a grain of salt! Always remember that you can’t believe everything you read online. Well, except pretty much everything written by Trump on Twitter. That is definitely all true.

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 The New Antiquarian: The Blog of the ABAA

Now, we might be a teensy bit biased toward the ABAA’s blog, as our blogs have been featured pieces on there several times! But in all truthfulness, if you’re looking for an antiquarian book world blog updated constantly with all different types of pieces… works on book collecting, on authors, on events, on problems in the book world – even thefts… look no further! In an all-around sense, the New Antiquarian sets you up with a little bit of everything… rare book world style!

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 Fine Books & Collections

The Fine Books & Collections online magazine has A LOT going on on their main page. Don’t let that deter you from delving in! Their blog page is a bit calmer and has a lot of interesting pieces… you can search through by genre and also by writers/bookstores that some of the blogs come from. Oh, and they don’t just report on antiquarian books… within you can even find works on recent TV shows based on famous authors and reviews of brand new literature hitting the shelves!

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 The Public Domain

The Public Domain is a very interesting find, in my not so humble opinion… their main focus, in their own words, is to be “an online journal and not-for-profit project dedicated to the exploration os curious and compelling works from the history of art, literature and ideas. In particular… the focus is on works which have now fallen into the public domain, that vast commons of out-of-copyright material that everyone is free to enjoy, share, and build upon without restriction.” The Public Domain focuses, as stated, on many out-of-copyright material – much of which you would not have heard of before, as they are often no longer printed for the masses! If you’re searching for the literary blog that will guarantee you the most interesting topic of conversation at your next dinner party… look no further!

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 The Book Designer

If you’re looking for something a bit less antiquarian and a bit more focused on the modern-day book world of e-books, publishing, self-publishing and producing, I suggest The Book Designer as a place to start. I find some of their blogs/articles a bit too “Self-Help-y” for my taste (nothing wrong with self-help, and in their defense their tagline is “Practical Advice to Help Build Better Books”), but if you’re looking to begin a writing or publishing or book designing career in any form or fashion, The Book Designer will have at least a hint of what you need.

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 Lit Hub

A great literature-lover blog that has a bit of antiquarian, a bit of modern, and a bit of cheek is Literary Hub. Just this past minute I read a blog on there I missed a couple weeks ago about Jane Austen’s ridiculous Mrs. Bennet being the most subversive and free-spirited of all of Austen’s characters! (Despite also being the most widely mocked.) This is just the type of literary article you can find on LitHub… along with reposts, new posts, literature and politics… a bit of something for every bibliophile who encounters it. Check it out!

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Also, check out this awesome list by Stephen J. Gertz on his book-blog BookTryst (another great blog) – briefly detailing some of the best antiquarian book blogs out there for our perusal!

But no matter where you head off to (online, that is) after reading this… just remember your promise! The moment you come across the article “Turning away Refugees is an American Tradition” on one of these websites, do as you will – snort, scoff, giggle then feel guilty about it, make sad droopy eyes… anything but shoot the messenger!


The Swedish Nightingale

By Margueritte Peterson


While working directly under Master and Commander Vic Zoschak at Tavistock Books, one name continuously caught my eye. Any time a piece came across our desks with this name mentioned, my eyes zeroed in on it. I couldn’t tell you if it was because I have a musical background or if I just loved the sound of it (lilting, feminine and birdlike, IMNSHO as Vic would say) – but whenever I read “Jenny Lind” it brought a smile to my face. More recently we had a fantastic item in stock – a letter from Florence Nightingale to the Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind, asking for tickets to one of her concerts. What an amazing piece, no? We featured it and it did sell, but just having it around made me think of Jenny Lind once again and I decided it was time we all knew a bit more about this famous opera star!

Screen Shot 2017-07-19 at 8.20.29 AMJohanna Maria Lind was born in 1820 into a rather unusual household for the times. Technically illegitimate, she was born to a bookkeeper and a school teacher who were not yet married. Though her mother had already divorced her first husband for adultery (understandable but definitely not the norm in the early 1800s), she would not marry Lind until after her first husband passed away, for religious reasons.  This meant that Johanna was 14 years old when her parents actually married. Not much is known if this was difficult for Lind as a child, but one could presume not quite since she studied from home in the school her mother ran for girls. I would hope that no other student would dare to make fun of the school mistress’ daughter!

When Johanna was about 9, her voice was overheard by the principal dancer of the Royal Swedish Opera’s maid. The maid brought Mademoiselle Lundberg with her the next day to hear Lind sing, and the principal dancer was so astonished that she arranged an audition for Lind at the Royal Dramatic Theatre, where she would begin by studying with Karl Magnus Craelius. Within a year Lind was on the stage and touring around Europe singing for the masses. Within two years, she suffered damage to her vocal cords and was out of the circuit for a few weeks. At 18 Lind starred in Weber’s Der Freischutz at the Royal Swedish Opera and then just two years later she suffered another bout of damage to her voice. This time around she began working with vocal coach Manuel Garcia, who made Lind remain almost silent for 3 months while healing her voice, and then began to teach her proper vocal technique – something she had never had the time to learn! Garcia should be noted as the teacher who saved Lind’s voice, as continuous trauma would have shut down her singing career for life. 

Screen Shot 2017-07-19 at 8.20.16 AMIn 1843 Lind was in the midst of a tour in Europe and while in Denmark met author Hans Christian Andersen, who fell madly in love with her. Though Lind did not reciprocate his feelings, the two became friends and Andersen is said to have written several fairy tales inspired by her! One can only assume that the later “The Nightingale” was one of these few. A year later, Lind began performing in Germany and Austria, where she connected with musicians Robert Schumann, Hector Berlioz and Felix Mendelssohn (who, though married, also fell madly in love with her and then died prematurely 4 months later, leaving Lind shattered) who were all inspired by her great talent. Mendelssohn even wrote a part for her in an opera debuted after his death, where she took the proceeds and donated them for a musical scholarship in Mendelssohn’s name. It is around this time that Lind became known as the “Swedish Nightingale.” She was madly popular in both musical and non-musical communities, as she donated much of her earnings to charities of her choosing – and would continue to do so for decades. 

After performing in Germany and Austria, Lind began singing in England at Her Majesty’s Theatre for Queen Victoria and other aristocrats (you know, people who could afford it). At the age of 29 while performing in England, Lind suddenly announced her retirement from opera – an announcement that still puzzles scholars to this day. Lind would continue to perform in concerts, but rejected all parts in operas from that day forward. 

lind2In 1849, P.T. Barnum (as in the circus) approached Lind to begin a tour of the United States. Lind agreed, and due to Barnum’s intense publicity of her coming arrived in the United States already famous. Her performances were so anticipated that her concert tickets were being sold at auction for triple their worth! Throughout the year she spent touring America under Barnum’s management, Lind made roughly $350k. Today, that equates to almost $10 million. Guess what Lind did with the money? You probably guessed correctly – she donated most of it to American and European charities! After a year under Barnum’s thumb Lind broke their contract to manage herself – somewhat tired of the intense publicity of her performances. During this time her pianist, Julius Benedict, left and went back to Europe, and Lind hired German pianist and composer Otto Goldschmidt to take his place. The two were married in less than a year in Boston at the end of their tour. 

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Our highlighted Lind item in stock now! An early to mid 19th century intermediate player sheet music & vocal book, featuring many songs made popular by Ms. Lind! See it here>

Lind and Goldschmidt returned to Europe in 1852 and spent a couple years living in Dresden, Germany, before eventually settling down in England. They would have three children together – Lind giving birth in her late 30s and early 40s, and Lind mainly focused on her life as a mother and wife. She would continue to give charity concerts throughout her life (passing away in 1887 at the age of 67), but as the years went on they became fewer and farther between. The worst part of researching this “Swedish Nightingale”? Apparently though she made a very early phonograph recording for Thomas Edison on one of his early cylinders, no recordings of her voice exist today. I don’t even think I can describe my disappointment on hearing that! It undoubtedly have been interesting to hear the voice that captured the hearts of hundreds of thousands of people…



Tavistock Books Reaches a Landmark Anniversary!

This Saturday will mark a triumphant year in the history of Tavistock Books. It will be our 20th Anniversary of opening our doors at 1503 Webster Street in Alameda, California. We took a little time to sit down with the man that started it all, one Vic Zoschak Jr., to see how the years have changed his attitude towards this trade and what he has learned in his experiences.

And Psst! Don’t miss a special email this upcoming Friday regarding a little celebratory gift we have for our loyal customers! 


Q: So V – Tavistock Books is celebrating 20 years since opening it’s doors! Does it feel like time as sped by, or have you felt every moment of the last 20 years? :)

The time has simply FLOWN by! It may sound trite, but it seems just like yesterday when I opened the doors at 1503 Webster St on 15 July 1997, a date which was a bare two weeks after my retirement from the Coast Guard. I didn’t know if the ‘experiment’ would work… I [mentally] gave myself two years to see if I could make a go of his bookselling thing. And now, here it is 20 years later!

Q: What do you feel at 20 years in the trade that you didn’t feel or know at 15 years or even at 19 years?

To be frank, I can’t say there was an epiphany at this coming milestone… the one thing that was made clear from the beginning was that bookselling is an extremely difficult way to make a living, and that not only does it depend on what you know [about books], but also who you know. I can truthfully say that early on, were not my CG pension there as a safety net, I probably would be doing something else today.

Q: What are you most excited about in this next phase of Tavistock’s Life?

I had to chuckle a bit on reading this question, for the most anticipated event in my future is retirement! lol

I turn 65 in a few months, and while I’ll probably be like most booksellers, and never fully retire, just fade-away, I also know that keeping up a shop, even one only open “By Chance or By Appointment” is not something I wish to do for too much longer. The provisional game plan at the moment, health [etc] cooperating, is to keep the shop open till it’s 25th anniversary in 2022, and celebrate that date with a “closing” sale. Then I’ll probably just get an office close to the house, so I can walk to work, a means of commuting to which I aspire.

Q: At your 25 year Anniversary you may be head of the ABAA, correct? Did you ever imagine when you were starting out that that could be in the cards for you?

Should the members of the ABAA do me the honor of electing me as their President, my term will be from 2018 – 2020. So in 2022, presuming nothing untoward happens between now & then, I’ll be a past-president of the ABAA when my shop’s 25th Anniversary rolls around. And no, in 1995, when accepted for membership in the ABAA, I did not imagine this future was in the cards.

Q: In a general sense, how has the book business changed for you over the last two decades? Do you see those changes for good or for worse? And if for worse – that won’t deter you from the next years in the trade, right? :)

Probably the biggest change has been the pervasiveness of the internet, and the concomitant demise of regional scarcity as an economic condition in the book trade. Pre-WWW days were characterized by scouting trips to find books, and on a good weekend, here in the Bay Area, one could hit a dozen or so shops, hoping to find some books to make the time & effort worthwhile. Now, one can search 20,000 shops with the click of a mouse. Books once described as scarce, or even rare, can be found in multiple copies via and similar sites. In reality, the number of copies didn’t change, just access to them. And this access is a great boon to collectors, and a challenge to booksellers. I can’t say it’s better or it’s worse, it just is, and as a bookseller, one must adapt to to the business environment to stay in business. In that vein, an adaptive bookselling philosophy is have either (1) the best copy, (2) the only copy or (3) the cheapest copy. I have, for the most part, subscribed to the first 2, and such has seemingly stood me in good stead these last 2 decades.

Q: How are you celebrating this year?! (Lemme guess… a manhattan and a ball game. :P)

The manhattan definitely [after work though!]. I’m also going to have a 20% off sale on July 15th, in a small effort to say thank you to all who have given me their business these last two decades. Without my customers’ patronage, this 1997 experiment of mine would have failed long ago.


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We Have the New Americana

Happy 4th of July! In honor of our great nation’s Independence Day, we thought we would share with our loyal followers some of our newest and/or most notable Americana items. What better time of year to round out your collection? And don’t forget to check in next week for the 20th Anniversary of our shop! An interview with our fearless leader and a special surprise for Tavistock fans – stay tuned!

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This Evolution of a State or Recollections of Old Texas Days is by a local Texan blacksmith – Noah Smithwick – who moved to Texas in 1827 and served in the war for Texas independence and later on as a Ranger. Though he left the state in 1861 due to his sympathies for the Union (sorry, Confederates!) he was able to leave behind a work that Dobie has called “The best of all books dealing with life in early Texas” and Jenkins notes as “the most fun to read”. Don’t miss out! This specially bound version of the edition can be seen here>

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This beautifully illustrated poster from United Air Lines dates back to 1968! Depicting a colorful and intricate (and distinctly American) ship in the Boston harbor – one can only wonder if this was successful at getting civilians to visit the beautiful city. One thing is for sure and certain… we are wishing it was time for the Boston Book Fair just by looking at this! See it here>

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This Compilation of all the Treaties between the United States and the Indian Tribes Now in Force as Laws is a necessary addition to any collection dealing with Native American history. This a 1st edition, as published in its original binding in 1873, with a very intriguing provenance… for it carries the bookplate of Mr. J. B. Milam, first principal Chief of the Cherokee nation. Intrigued? See it here>

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Our old archiving wiz Kate Mitas recently published a series of blogs detailing her experiences in cataloguing archival material! We have seen a rise in archival interest in the trade over the last many years, and truly enjoy when an interesting collection comes across our desks. Here we have the archive of a Pennsylvania man, Adam Atkinson’s purchases of land in Pennsylvania, Indiana and Ohio in the early to mid 1800′s! The letters within provide a unique view of western expansion, charting quite literally western expansion of a single community. Of note in this collection as well are the number of documents pertaining to Atkinson’s attempts to locate surviving Revolutionary War soldiers or their descendants in order to purchase unclaimed Revolutionary War bounty land grants! Read more on this fascinating collection here>


Screen Shot 2017-06-28 at 7.29.31 PMI know I often include execution pamphlets in blogs like this one (what can I say… some of us have strange minds!), but this one is one of the most interesting we have seen! This an 1821 broadside detailing the execution of Stephen Merrill Clark, who was convicted of intentionally setting fire to a stable owned by one Mrs. Pheobe Cross, which in turn consumed the house of Andrew Frothingham, Esq. Now this rare broadside will be a favorite with parents the world over (bear with me here) as Clark’s dying exhortation contains the following: “My the youth who are present take warning by my sad fate, not to forsake the wholesome discipline of a Parent’s house. Had I taken the advice of my parents I never should have come to this untimely end”. Imagine that! See this rare in the trade item here>

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And, last but not least! As a reminder to all of you who use July 4th as an excuse to party hard (not that we are excluding ourselves from this)… a piece of temperance reminder! This archival book contains over 400 pages of clippings, letters and leaflets all about the Temperance movement and Prohibition in the early 20th century! Compiled by a Pomona, California native Mrs. S. C. W. Bowen (presumed), this catalogue of prohibition is sure to set you on your toes… See it here>


Archival Cataloguing for Booksellers, Part III: Intellectual Content and Research Methods

By Kate Mitas

Before diving into the subject at hand, a brief, belated caveat:

Throughout this blog series, I have so far used “archive” to mean something at least vaguely equivalent to the Society of American Archivist’s definition: “[m]aterials created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of the enduring value contained in the information they contain or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator, especially those materials maintained using the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control; permanent records.” A recent discussion with Arthur Fournier (Fournier Fine & Rare), who was a panelist at the recent RBMS Conference session, “Defining the Archive” has prompted me to reexamine my use (or possibly, misuse) of the term. Arthur was kind enough to share his thoughts on the matter, which will be appearing in a future installment in the series, but, suffice it to say, my usage of “archive” in this blog is, at the very least, up for debate. For the sake of expediency, I’m going to keep using it as a broad term for the types of materials I’m referring to — most often, in my admittedly limited experience, collections of assorted original, printed and visual matter, often of a vernacular nature — and for now will just ask you to think critically about the term, how I’m using it, how you might define it otherwise, etc.

NB. Links to additional resources and full definitions of terms are embedded throughout this blog — please make use of them!

Right, now for the fun part: finally digging into your archive, interpreting your findings, and backing up your claims with reliable data. What could be easier?

Well, depending on your archive, quantum physics, for one, or perhaps learning to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on the piano with your toes. (Okay, I’m only speaking from experience in the latter example, but still.) Archives can be hard, and more than a little overwhelming on first approach, like having to assemble a complicated jigsaw puzzle that may or may not be complete and without knowing what the resultant picture should look like, in the full knowledge that your livelihood depends to some degree on your ability to not only piece the puzzle together but then also, and just as importantly, convince someone to buy it.

So, where to begin? Adrienne Horowitz Kitts (Austin Abbey Rare Books), a fellow CABS 2015 grad who recently made national headlines for her work on an archive of suffragist correspondence sent to Isabella Beecher Hooker, including letters from Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, advises beginners not to be intimidated. “Take a day, or two or three to get to know the contents; look at each piece and dust it off, get an idea of what is in there. A combination of items in the archive — letters, manuscripts, pamphlets, leaflets, photographs — together tell the story.”

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A portion of the suffragist archive. Photo courtesy of J. Adam Fenster/University of Rochester.

Archivists have a term for this: artifactual literacy, “the ability to understand, contextualize and interpret primary sources.” So, in a way, do booksellers: selling point. Finding the story and telling it is not only the hardest and most rewarding aspect of cataloguing an archive, it’s also the best way I know of to convince someone to buy it.

Understanding How Institutions View Archives

It’s worth pointing out here that booksellers and institutions value archives differently. Commercial value isn’t synonymous with research value: institutions add to their collections for a variety of reasons (and with sometimes vastly different budgets at their disposal), and “research value” is far from being a monolithic criterion. Knowing some of the basic lenses institutions apply can not only help you understand what makes your archive important, it can also help you decide which institutions to approach, and even why an institution may decide against purchase.

Very broadly speaking, an archive might be considered useful to an institution on the basis of its intrinsic value, its evidential value, or its informational value. In extremely simplified terms, what this means is that an archive might be valued on the basis of what it is, what it reveals about the work and activities of its creator(s), or what it tells us about the time and place of its creation.

Adrienne’s suffragist correspondence seems to me a pretty clear example of an archive with a high degree of intrinsic value: the content is hugely significant, of course, but I doubt similar letters exchanged between minor figures in the movement would have garnered the same kind of national attention. Not surprisingly, the University of Rochester, who purchased the material, holds both the John and Isabella Beecher Hooker papers and the papers of Susan B. Anthony. Conversely, if a similar suffragist archive didn’t include any correspondence from major figures, but nevertheless revealed organizational details like meeting minutes, procedural issues, locations of talks/protests, etc., it might be considered useful on the basis of its evidential value; the archive of a previously unknown but active suffragist might be said to have informational value.

The point of all of this isn’t that you have to learn archival theory to catalogue archives, it’s that, whether you’re aware of it or not, these broad angles of emphasis — what an archive is in and of itself, what it reveals about its creator’s activities, and what information it provides— are in fact already influencing how you interpret and describe the intellectual content of an archive. Telling any story requires deciding which details are important and which to leave out, and the story of your archive is no different.

Determining Intellectual Content

Unless you know everything there is to know about the material you’re working with — and I suspect it’s a rare occasion indeed when that happens, if it happens at all — understanding and researching your archive inevitably go hand in hand. So how do you go about figuring out just what exactly you have, especially if you have no idea what to look for in the first place, and might not recognize an important detail if you were staring directly at it?

It’s likely that every bookseller has a unique approach to this conundrum: some slightly mystical application of personal experience, knowledge, curiosity, technological skill, etc., that somehow lands them at the tail end of cataloguing an archive feeling like they’ve found its most compelling and honest narrative. I’ve found that I can usually augment my lack of experience and knowledge with an ability to parse data for relevant information quickly and deduce potential avenues of inquiry from it — so my research often involves rapid-fire Google searches, followed by digging around on primary source sites like and That’s not necessarily the best way to go about it, however. Garrett Scott (Garrett Scott, Bookseller), offers these useful, and moderately analog, observations, instead:

I tend . . . to have a blank sheet of paper and two sharp pencils (they have to be sharp!) as the tangible browser cache on my desk. Ideally I try to pick at whatever loose bits of fact need figuring out and follow my curiosity and by the time a diary or archive or collection is cataloged I have usually used only a portion of the info I’ve scribbled on the blank sheet and have wasted time going down a few unrelated alleys. (From dental surgery I once ended up combing theater ads for child prodigy performers in Philadelphia in the 1850s — there was some connection but not much — and I regret it not one bit.)

I figure it’s like the recent claim that humans didn’t see the color blue until they had the language for it — I don’t see interesting things about archives (or future buys) until I’ve created my own language and interest in it that comes about from noodling around with references and following where the material and curiosity (related and unrelated) leads.

The key thing to remember, no matter how you approach it, is to let the material dictate the narrative, which means keeping an open mind about where you might wind up, focusing on the contents of the material itself (i.e., if the creator of your archive turns out to be the first cousin twice removed of a famous 19th century explorer, but the contents of your archive document a widow’s life in Philadelphia during the Civil War, you won’t be doing yourself any favors hyping the tangential connection to exploration — and in fact, might be eliding the very thing your archive was meant to preserve), and supporting your findings. It’s incredibly easy to make assumptions about your material, and even to get excited about it based on those assumptions. Nevertheless, to my mind, we have a responsibility both to our customers and to our profession to represent what we sell as honestly as we can.

The ethical ramifications of imposing a narrative might seem a bit muffled on the supplier’s side of the archival equation, but the consequences can be far-reaching for booksellers as well as researchers, and not only because booksellers can lose customers from the practice. Imposing a narrative can help perpetuate stereotypes and biases, which in turn restricts avenues of cultural inquiry and the commerce that depends on it.

As Elizabeth Birmingham recounts in her essay on architect Marion Mahony Griffin, “‘I See Dead People’: Archive, Crypt, and an Argument for the Researcher’s Sixth Sense,” imposed narratives and accepted narratives are sometimes (often? usually?) interchangeable. In Birmingham’s case, this meant that over the course of more than a decade of research, and in spite of having access to Mahony Griffin’s own manuscript account of her work and marriage to architect Walter Burley Griffin and nearly 700 accompanying illustrations, Birmingham went along with the prevailing narrative that Mahony Griffin was merely her husband’s helper, and a grudging one at that. Eventually, however, Marion Mahony (as she is now more commonly known) became recognized as one of the great architects of the 20th century, and gained prominence for her artistic ability as well — most of the drawings of Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs in his major 1910 Wasmuth portfolio were done by Mahony, and a book of her botanical paintings was published in 2005. Birmingham is now one of her strongest champions, and a copy of Mahony’s manuscript archive has been digitized and is available in full to any who wish to view it. “The researcher’s sixth sense isn’t the ability to see the dead but our potential to help the dead, who do not know they are dead, finish their stories,” Birmingham ruefully concludes in her essay, “and we do this in the moment we realize their stories are ours” (Landmark Essays on Archival Research, p. 169).

Research Methods

Good archival research, particularly for our relatively limited ends, often comes down to a combination of information literacy — the ability to recognize when you need to use sources, identify credible sources, and use them efficiently and appropriately — and the same sense of professionalism and self-discipline (dare I say “honor”?) that any good bookseller applies to bibliographic research. Just as you wouldn’t skip collating a book or checking a reference number even if you’ve gotten the book from one of the best dealers in the business, you shouldn’t skip doing some basic, but necessary, research on your archive to ensure that it is, in fact, what you say it is.

Recognizing when to use sources:

For me, recognizing when to use sources is pretty simple: I don’t know something, and I think it might be important to the story whose trail I’m sniffing out. I ask myself questions the entire time I’m working my way through an archive, testing each new bit of information against what I think I know about the material. Who is this person? What event are they referring to? Why does this matter to them? Could it matter for another reason? What do they mean when they say x, and is it the same thing I mean when I say it? How does this compare to other archives like this that I’ve seen? Etc., etc., etc. Questioning myself is a way of honing my interpretation as I go, and forcing myself to support that interpretation (or discredit it) with research from outside sources when necessary.

Evaluating the credibility of sources:

Since I mentioned journalism in an earlier blog, it seems appropriate to turn to that profession for advice in identifying and evaluating credible sources.* Drawing on both the Harvard Kennedy School’s Journalist’s Resource and Columbia College’s online guidelines, here are some good questions to ask about your source:

  • Where was it published?
  • How long ago was it published?
  • Who wrote it, and what are their credentials? Might they have a conflict of interest/implicit or explicit bias (e.g., be a relative of your subject, an enthusiast rather than a scholar, etc.)?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • Are the conclusions drawn supported by evidence?
  • Is it a primary or secondary source? If primary, are you able to view an image (at least) of the original document, or just a transcript?

Sometimes less-than-credible sources, like Wikipedia, whose information can and will be frequently altered, are nevertheless handy for pointing the way to credible sources — I’ve found a number of good resources by following the links in an entry’s “References” and “External Links” sections, and have used these as a way to confirm the veracity of a Wikipedia entry, too. Conversely, seemingly credible sources, like those found on Ancestry, are not always as reliable as you might think: family trees are usually compiled by family members and are rarely correct, and the Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software used to translate primary source documents into the searchable terms on the site can be exceptionally bad. It is always, always better to look at the original document yourself, if possible.

*And, just for good measure, here’s a link to the Society for Professional Journalism’s (SPJ) Code of Ethics, too:

Using Sources:

Much as booksellers often bemoan the inroads digitization has made on the trade, the research benefits of internet archives are hard to dispute. The ease with which I can view high-resolution scans of California’s earliest newspapers on the California Digital Newspaper Collection (CDNC) or pull up the passenger record of a 19th-century immigrant to Philadelphia on  would’ve been unfathomable to booksellers a generation ago. These sites have their limitations, of course, both in the lack of availability of certain material and the prevalence of errors impeding search results. Nevertheless, the package deal of Ancestry and has been the single best archival research tool to which we’ve subscribed, and is well worth the annual fee.

Archivist and CABS 2015 grad Caitlin Moriarity also suggests ArchiveGrid — which allows users to search archive collections across institutions through Worldcat — and encourages booksellers to reach out to archivists for research help, too. “Half of my day is spent answering reference questions that have been emailed to the library, and we are happy to look into finding more information than what is in the catalog record or finding aid. It is one of the best parts of my job!”


Probably the single most frequently used research tool we all turn to is, of course, Google: the information age’s very own omniscient narrator, Delphic Oracle and global Magic 8 Ball rolled into one. Google can be extraordinarily informative, extraordinarily misleading and extraordinarily useless. Like any tool, you have to know how to use it.

Google’s search algorithm is a notoriously well-kept secret, changing 500 – 600 times a year and relying on over 200 unique signifiers to calculate the results of your latest search for, say, cute cat videos. I’m not going to pretend to know what these signifiers are: suffice it to say, mind-boggling calculations occur every time you perform a Google search.

Luckily, there are ways to limit your search results. Here is a partial list of Google search operators that I’ve found to be useful:

“ “    Exact phrase search
+      Adds a word to the search
-       Subtracts a word from the search
OR   Searches for one search term or another
allintitle:   Searches for an entire group of words in the site’s title
allintext:   Searches for an entire group of words in the body of a site’s text
*   Missing word search

There are many, many more search operators and methods of searching. For more information, as well as examples and explanations, check out MIT’s Google Search Tips or Moz’s blog, “Mastering Google Search Operators in 67 Easy Steps.”

Alternatively, Google Advanced Search offers a guided search tool, with fields designated for the most common search operators.

Keep in mind that word order matters. Front-loading your searches with the terms you’re looking for yields different results than, say, asking a full question (e.g., “Steamship San Francisco wreck causes” versus “How did the steamship San Francisco wreck?”). Another tip, suggested by Jason Rovito (Jason Rovito, Bookseller), is to have a specific browser devoted exclusively to research, and not clear the browser cache. Google relies on your search history to help determine the relevancy of your search results. As Jason relates, “One of the more fascinating discoveries when I was helping to reconstruct a library of a then-obscure/completely forgotten book collector is that as I searched Google for various items in his library (or went off on tangential searches—e.g. searching up the names on bookplates), the relevancy of my future searches dramatically increased. It was a weird sort of conjuring act / following in someone’s (partial) footsteps. So that, eventually, when I re-Googled the name of the collector (albeit in fairly detailed, drilled-down searches), his name finally started appearing.”

Potentially, of course, overly refined search results may exclude information you don’t know you’re looking for, which might be problematic. One especially important thing to watch that you don’t fall prey to, as well, are “featured snippets”: those boxes of answers that appear at the top of your search results. They aren’t topping your list because they’re the best answer, but because they’re top-ranked. Anticipatory features like this on Google have come under attack lately for helping to promote fake news and hate organizations. Just remember that these results are based on site popularity, not relevancy (and certainly not accuracy).

Knowing When to Stop

In reality,most archives don’t require the kind of months of research that you may now be imagining they need. If you’re not careful, you can very easily over-research an archive, and it’s important to know when the value of your time outweighs the value added by further research. In my experience, archives may not require much more than for me to establish basic details, like where and when a person lived, or to glean a rough overview on an unfamiliar topic. Those that do require a considerable amount of research may be more profitable if they’re flipped to a more knowledgeable bookseller — at the very least, the time you’ll need to catalogue a research-heavy archive has to be factored into its cost. In fact, you can even use an estimate of the time it would take to catalogue an archive to work with your customer’s budget constraints. As John Kuenzig (Kuenzig Books) points out, “Many customers have more money in their acquisitions budget than their cataloging budget. So it can be useful to talk with potential buyers about what level of cataloging would be necessary to ensure success — I’ve even quoted two prices with different levels of cataloging.”

Ideally, archives should require just enough research for us to sell them. Knowing where that line falls is a skill that develops with experience, but is an essential skill for anyone dealing in archives. (Whether we stick to that line or choose to indulge our curiosity is another matter.)

Next in the series: Telling the Story