Anatomy of the Poe Collection

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By Sarah Gearhart, Volunteer in Special Collections

Many of the books I handle in my volunteer job in Special Collections are "tender" (their bindings are loose) and some are "cocked" ("usually caused by either reading the book, or stacking cases of beer on it," as one humorous glossary puts it). Some covers are simply "bumped" or "rubbed"; others may be "gnawed" around the edges. The vocabulary used to describe the special features and condition of a book is itself often "tender," and sometimes amusing.

Poe Room Book Collection

I have been learning this vocabulary as I have been assessing the condition of the books and other materials that are part of the Library’s Edgar Allan Poe Rare Book Collection. Poe is connected to Baltimore, having family here, living and writing in the city at different periods in his life, and as many know, dying in Baltimore in 1849. Poe was an extraordinarily prolific author for someone whose life ended at 40. The Library holds copies of all his published work, in various editions, as well as numerous books about him. In all, the book collection totals over three hundred—and that doesn't even count the manuscripts in the Edgar Allan Poe Collection, can be viewed online in the Enoch Pratt Free Library Digital Collections. (Download a PDF of the Edgar Allan Poe Collection Finding Aid here.)

Sketch of Poe, a Raven and Virginia PoeUnder the supervision of Michael Johnson, manager of the Special Collections Department, and the Library’s conservator, Martha Edgerton, I got my first lessons in assessment. Martha introduced me to the vocabulary for describing the condition of older and rare books—the kinds of deterioration in the binding and the text block that can happen over time—and what can be done to repair or at least diminish them. Together she and Michael developed a database to record both the basic bibliographical details of a book, including the book’s measurements and a brief description of its design, as well as the crucial aspects of the book’s condition. Once complete, we will use this information to determine a book's need for repair or protection.

As I am building the condition database, Jeanne Marsh, another volunteer, is continuing to build an inventory that includes the book’s (or piece’s) place in its printing history, its donor to the library, and its monetary value to booksellers and collectors in today’s market.

The purpose of both parts of the Poe Project—as Jeanne and I "ponder... over many a quaint and curious volume," like the narrator of "The Raven"—is to give both library customers and scholars, the world over, access to the details of the Pratt Library’s substantial holdings relating to one of Baltimore’s most famous and favorite sometime-sons and an author of continuing international appeal—for either research or sheer pleasure.

Interested in volunteering at the Library?
Visit the Volunteer at the Pratt page to learn more about volunteer opportunities.

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