Guest post by Ashley Young, Ph.D. candidate in history at Duke.
Earlier this year, Ashley Young took first prize in the graduate category of the Andrew T. Nadell Book Collectors Contest, sponsored by the Friends of the Duke University Libraries. In August, we were delighted to find out that she also took second prize in the National Collegiate Book Collectors Contest. This is Ashley’s account of her trip to Washington, D.C., for the awards ceremony on October 18, hosted by the Library of Congress. Visit Ashley’s website to find out more about her research and interest in Southern foodways.
This past Thursday morning, I headed to the City Archives Division of the New Orleans Public Library as the sun’s first rays skimmed over the Mississippi, knowing that I wanted to get in a full day of research before venturing to Washington, D.C., for the National Collegiate Book Collectors Contest awards ceremony. As I pored over documents at the archive, I couldn’t help but daydream about my impending trip to the Library of Congress (LOC), where my fellow awardees and I were likely to take a tour of the special collections as part of the NCBCC event. Our families were also invited to partake in all of the celebrations, and my parents were planning to drive down from Pittsburgh for the weekend. I was looking forward to hearing Mark Dimunation, chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the LOC, speak about some of the library’s most precious and unique documents. I was also eager to see the complete replica of Thomas Jefferson’s personal library and the celebrated architecture of the LOC’s Great Hall with its marble columns, jewel-toned stained glass ceiling, and brilliantly painted ceiling panels. Although undeniably enthusiastic, I had no inclination as to how memorable and inspiring this trip would be for my parents and me.
The partial government shutdown necessitated some changes in the traditional proceedings of the NCBCC awards ceremony. Instead of heading to the LOC for the special collections tour as originally planned, we visited the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill. The library, which was originally built by the Folger family in the 1930s, is known for possessing the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare materials. Additionally, it houses a rich and deeply fascinating collection of early modern books, manuscripts, and artwork. One of my favorite aspects of the Folger is its main reading room, which is modeled after an Elizabethan-era great hall. The ornate wood, rustic chandeliers, and vaulted ceilings create an environment that undoubtedly inspires the privileged scholars who research there on a regular basis.
After the guided tour of the library, an extremely kind and animated archivist shared a few highlights of the rare book and manuscripts collection with us. These materials were awe-inspiring, ranging from 16th-century cooking manuscripts to an original printing (c. 1623) of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works. Other treasures included a law signed by Queen Elizabeth I and an encyclopedia of herbs accompanied by the original wood block that was used to print the image of the plant on the displayed page. We could not help but fall into animated conversations about the practices of book printing and binding in the early modern era. Before we knew it, our time with these amazing materials was up and we were being ushered out of the Folger to go to the NCBCC award ceremony.
The ceremony was a wonderful celebration of the three student collections that were awarded prizes for their creativity and deep scholarly approach. John Cole, the director of the LOC, personally introduced each of our collections and presented us with our award. Then Mark Dimunation interviewed each of us at the podium, asking thought-provoking questions as to why we originally became interested in the focus of our particular collections, how these collections are changing the way scholars understand our nation’s history, and what materials we are eager to include in our collections in the future. I was grateful to have an opportunity to voice my passion for historical cookbooks and the ways in which these sources are so much more than just repositories of recipes. Rather, their pages contain significant historical themes such as American transatlantic ties to Europe; racial tensions in the Jim Crow era; women’s roles in the postbellum South; and New Orleans’ transatlantic cultural exchange with Europe, West Africa, and the Caribbean.
After the official ceremony, there was a two-hour cocktail reception—a wonderful opportunity to meet passionate bibliophiles whose collections are as interesting and eccentric as my own. For example, one collector has amassed thousands of copies of Alice in Wonderland in dozens of languages. He even wrote a satirical cookbook based on the fantastical world of Wonderland, and is going to share a copy with me. (That is a cookbook I never expected to have in my collection!) By the time the event had come to a close, I felt as though I had found a new community with which to share my research and collecting interests—one that will inevitably enrich the ties I have already established with my tight-knit scholarly community at Duke.
Now I am settled back into my life in New Orleans with another day of satisfying research under my belt. My evening routine has changed slightly after my weekend in D.C.—instead of drinking my customary cup of tea out of a nondescript mug, I am happily slurping from one I purchased as a keepsake this past weekend. Its words replicate those that grace the Great Hall of the LOC: “Knowledge Comes, but Wisdom Lingers.” As I prepare for another day in the archives, I enjoy the small reminder that my pursuit of a Ph.D. reflects my ultimate dream of being a life-long academic. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to continue to cultivate my historic cookbook collection in the coming years and hopefully turn some of that accumulated knowledge into lingering wisdom.