Collecting Texas: Essays on Texana Collectors and the Creation of Research Libraries

By Thomas H. Kreneck and Gerald D. Saxon. Dallas, TX: Book Club of Texas, 2010. 195 pp. $75.00 (cloth).

Long before book history emerged as a discrete discipline, collecting manuscript and printed material in the West attracted, fascinated, and sometimes appalled scholarly attention. Thomas Dibdin’s classic Bibliomania,1 while satirizing “book-madness,” provided in its lengthy footnotes occasional profiles of important early collectors, inaugurating a narrative sketch form that continued in later works like Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt’s Book in America2 and even full- blown biographies such as A. N. L. Munby’s Portrait of an Obsession3 about Thomas Phillipps. While these surveys all preserved valuable information about collectors and collecting, the emergence of psychology brought the question of motivation to bear, opening another front in the scholarship. Jean Baudrillard’s essay “Le Système marginal”4 viewed collecting as a regressive behavior, while Werner Muensterberger’s Collecting5 interpreted it as therapy for psychological trauma early in life. Tom Tanselle, in “A Rationale of Collecting,”6 rejected earlier scholars’ pathological interpretations, but his definition of collecting was so expansive that it made almost everyone a collector and will surely not be the last word. More recently, some historians have looked beyond the narrative sketch and psychological analysis, pressing instead for a more historically nuanced approach. Nicholas Basbanes’s monumental Gentle Madness,7 while primarily a survey, attempted some limited historical analysis, and Robert Shaddy’s Books and Book Collecting in America, 1890-19308 provided a strong model of how cultural history can help contextualize collecting activity. Although the narrative survey and psychological inquiry will continue to have value, an analytical approach may begin to help scholars think about collecting less as an individual quirk and more as a culturally structured expression of historically rooted ambitions and identities.

Now added to the literature is Collecting Texas: Essays on Texana Collectors and the Creation of Research Libraries. The volume defines Texana for its purposes as “the written remains of Texas history” (2). While the second half of the subtitle might suggest an interpretive focus on institution-building, it really only describes the final destination of these collections, all of which migrated in part or in full to an institutional repository, mostly within Texas. Although some of the collectors had an early institutional focus, others pursued their acquisitions for many years with little or no thought of an institutional home. Collecting Texas thus falls more comfortably in the vein of narrative sketch, but these nine lengthy profiles of ten collectors offer considerable depth and, in some cases, a bit of primary documentation. This Texana focus might seem to risk reinforcing a stereotype of Texas parochialism, but closer consideration suggests that these twentieth-century collectors were simply doing for Texas what other regional collectors did for Eastern states a century earlier.

The editors begin with an introductory essay that briefly outlines the careers of three legendary Texana collectors: Swante Palm, Earl Vandale, and Thomas W. Streeter. Whereas much of Palm’s and Vandale’s collections made their way to the University of Texas at Austin, the Streeter collection was acquired by Yale, a loss that inspired many, including Harry Huntt Ransom, to redouble efforts to build the institutional support that would keep such collections in Texas. This opening survey of the big names of Texana is primarily a device for introducing lesser-known collectors, whose activity has subsequently left a prominent mark on the state’s research institutions. While these individual collectors might seem secondary to someone like Vandale, the collective impact of their work has enriched the state tremendously.

The first essay after the introduction is actually an anomaly, for unlike all the others, it is written by the collector himself, Al Lowman. A retired businessman and past president of the Texas State Historical Association, Lowman is perhaps the dean of Texas collectors, and his essay complements the others by providing insights into motivation, focus (or lack thereof), and personal meaning delivered in a collector’s own voice. The subsequent essays are all by knowledgeable book professionals, generally librarians and academics, most having a current or recent affiliation with the institutions where these collections found a home. While each essay possesses its own character, all provide basic biographical information, discuss how the individual (or individuals, in the case of a husband-and-wife team) became interested in collecting, and indicate the ultimate disposition of the collection(s).

The acumen with which these collectors assembled their Texana holdings is impressive, their generosity is admirable, and the vision and commitment of their institutional heirs speaks strongly of a statewide appreciation for primary research material. One might wonder how the collecting of a relatively homogeneous group of nine men and one woman, all of apparently non- Hispanic European heritage, almost all Texas natives, most college-educated, and most employed in a professional occupation, may have shaped content and, through institutional migration, thereby influenced how “history” will be constructed by future scholars. Several of the collectors, however, seem consciously to have widened their scope to include Spanish and Mexican resources, thus broadening the definition of Texana, and of course the question of collecting bias must be asked of every research collection regardless of its source. While the information presented here is not detailed enough for a close analysis, the individuals profiled in Collecting Texas seem to have assembled core primary materials necessary for research in the important political, economic, and social developments of Texas history. One hopes that research libraries and future collectors will continue to build upon and branch out from the areas covered by these collectors, further deepening the knowledge base available to scholars of Texas, the United States, and Mexico.

Collecting Texas is a tribute to a group of bibliophiles whose efforts have greatly enriched the scholarly resources of the Lone Star State. By providing an overview of the scope of these collections and profiles of a dedicated cadre of twentieth-century collectors, the book will itself serve as a valuable resource for scholars of collecting and book history.

Thomas A. Bolze, Yale University Library

  • 1. Thomas Frognall Dibdin, The Bibliomania, or, Book-Madness (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1809)
  • 2. Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt, The Book in America: A History of the Making, the Selling, and the Collecting of Books in the United States (New York: R.R. Bowker Co., 1939).
  • 3. A. N. L. Munby, Portrait of an Obsession: The Life of Sir Thomas Phillipps, the World’s Greatest Book Collector (New York: Putnam, 1967).
  • 4. Jean Baudrillard, “Le Système marginal: la collection,” in Le Système des objets (Paris: Gallimard, 1968).
  • 5. Werner Muensterberger, Collecting: An Unruly Passion: Psychological Perspectives (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994).
  • 6. G. Thomas Tanselle, “A Rationale of Collecting.” Studies in Bibliography 51 (1998): 1–25.
  • 7. Nicholas A. Basbanes, A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books (New York: H. Holt and Co., 1995).
  • 8. Robert Alan Shaddy, Books and Book Collecting in America, 1890-1930 (Lewiston, NY: E. Mellen Press, 2000).