An SPL blog reader recently suggested to me that I write about “crazy books in the collection.” With over 200,000 volumes SPL definitely has its share of those (among my favorites are a slim little volume on the guys who figured out how to embalm Lenin and a book about the first scientific studies of the duck-billed platypus*)
However, one of the best places to seek out unusual reading material is the Local History Room at the Central Library. It’s used primarily by genealogists, historic preservationists, and people with interest, professional or otherwise, in some aspect of Somerville history. It contains various city records, some of which can provide an interesting window on the concerns of people in the past.
In an age when kids are wired into multimedia of various sorts 24/7 and they use text message acronyms in written school assignment, this passage from the 1859 School Committee Report shows how much things have changed:
Latin and Mathematics constitute the bulk of the study in the High School. The experience of the past….is in favor of these studies, as affording the best means for giving thorough mental discipline, and thus preparing our children to discharge most creditably the active duties of life.
I’m sure a thorough knowledge of Horace and Catullus was of great help to male graduates of the High School 4 years later when they were dodging bullets at Gettysburg.
The Local History Room also has one of only two known copies of A Brief History of Somerville 1630-1842. A local named Isobel M. Cheney wrote it to fulfill her thesis requirement for a master’s in history at BU. In its pages you can learn about little-known men of Somerville & Charlestown’s past such as Col. Samuel Jacques, the proprietor of Ten Hills Farm. Jacques became famous for the remarkable quality of livestock he bred and the produce he cultivated. And he seems to have had a reputation as a veterinarian as well:
In 1840 the first orang-outang known to America was on exhibit in Boston. When the monkey became ill the Colonel was called upon to see if he could make him well. He had a two-floor dwelling made for the animal and after a year the monkey was restored to health.
The LH Room not only contains government documents and works of Somerville and New England history, but also houses books from the library’s nineteenth-century collection: As Nature Shows Them : Moths and Butterflies of the United States East of the Rocky Mountains, The North American Sylva, or, A Description of the Forest Trees of the United States, Canada and Nova Scotia and one of my own personal favorites: The Finding of Wineland the Good, an 1890 translation of the Norse saga of the same name, complete with pictures of pages from a surviving manuscript. It’s really outrageous: characters are constantly getting exiled to Iceland for manslaughter or going on murdering sprees with axes. I also take a childish delight in the names: Thorbiorg the Ship-Chested, Thori the Loiterer, Eyiolf the Foul…
And I conclude by telling you about our local authors collection: some time in the past century an SPL employee thought it would be a good idea to collect books written by Somerville residents, so we’ve got page-turners such as German Criticism of Zola, 1875-1893, with Special Reference to the Rougon-Macquart Cycle, Songs of the Average Man, and Dry Laws and Wet Politicians.
Admit it: after reading this you can’t wait to visit the Local History Room.
*Favorite moment: when the French biologist Etienne Geoffroy St-Hilaire learned that female platypuses produce milk, he said, “If these are mammary glands, where is the butter?”