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Old is Relative

by Sara Trotta, Librarian

Library staff are back in the stacks and while it’s wonderful to be reunited with all the books and manuscripts (and that delightful old book smell!), I’m still missing our patrons and all of the serendipitous interactions you get when someone wanders in off the street to discover the library for the first time. One of the most common questions we get during these interactions and on tours is “What’s the oldest thing you have here?” We get this question so often that I really should have a better answer for it by now. In a place where you can’t roll a bookcart without hitting* something ‘old’ this question resists a simple answer. And, like so many reference questions, it’s usually worthwhile to do some digging to get at the question behind the question first.

I could go by actual age, in which case there are the cuneiform tablets from the Pratt collection, allegedly several millennia old. When someone asks “what’s the oldest thing here?” they are in part making an appeal to authority. They’re asking “what’s the most important thing in your collection?”. This conflation of age and authority is nothing new. I’m reminded of the staff bookclub’s recent reading about the history of the Bible which describes Jerome’s trouble having his new translations accepted as canon for the first few hundred years of their existence, until they’d gained a fine patina of old age. Certainly, when Pratt acquired the tablets, being able to boast something so old lent a certain weight to his collection and his prowess as a collector, but unless you can read them, these tablets can’t be much more than a curiosity.

Sometimes this question is shorthand for “what’s the most valuable thing in your collection?”. This also has no easy answer. First, you have to ask “most valuable to whom?” And “valuable in what sense?” Age is only a small part of the equation. What one researcher considers an unparalleled find may be completely useless to another. Age may generally correlate with monetary value in the sense that the older a book is, the fewer there are likely to be in the world. But if no one is interested in buying a book, it doesn’t matter how old or how scarce it might be.

As someone who has several 300 year old items sitting on my desk at this very moment, I often have to remind myself that old is relative and my perception is quite skewed. Several years ago, a couple came into the library hoping to find the Museum of African American history which used to have its offices in our building. We got to talking about the Granary Burial Ground located right outside our reading room windows and the Boston Massacre and they asked if we had anything in the collection about it that they could see. I brought out The Trial of the British Soldiers, of the 29th Regiment of Foot, for the murder of Crispus Attucks, Samuel Gray, Samuel Maverick, James Caldwell, and Patrick Carr, on Monday Evening March 5, 1770, originally published in 1807. I sheepishly apologized that I didn’t have something more contemporary on hand to show them, but I don’t think my apology had even registered. They were thrilled with the pamphlet, thrilled that they were able to hold it and read it for themselves, thrilled that they were allowed to handle something so ‘old’. It was a good reminder for me and my lack of enthusiasm for anything printed after 1800 about the capacity the material in our collection has to evoke wonder and how easy it is to invite someone in and make them feel part of the story. It’s good to be reminded that age is just a number, and selfishly, this is just the sort of thing I’m missing most while we wait for things to return to something resembling ‘normal’.

*Note: staff are very careful not to roll bookcarts into anything.