Treasure hunt in the stacks

by Eszter Hargittai on November 6, 2003

Kieran has previously reported on all the fun one can have browsing the stacks in Firestone Library at Princeton. The library used to require that patrons sign their name when borrowing a book and Kieran managed to find the signatures of some famous people on the cards that had been left in some books. The system wasn’t so great about privacy, but it sure allows for an interesting glimpse into a book’s life.

Yesterday, one of my colleagues mentioned that she found an 1855 or 1892 book here at Northwestern’s library that had never been browsed by anyone else. The reason she was quite certain of this is that the pages of the book were uncut. The book had been pushed together so hard by the neighboring volumes that its pages were all white and it looks new despite being over a century old.

I have sometimes wondered, if one were to have a free afternoon in Princeton (as I may next week), what would be books to look for in Firestone on which one may encounter an interesting signature? I suspect Kieran will have tried several, but maybe something’s left for the rest of us.:) If anyone has suggestions, I’ll be happy to check next week.



tim 11.06.03 at 9:37 pm

Searching for traces of old encounters in books is fine, but a little selfish, don’t you think? You should leave something for the next generation of scholars and would-be scholars. I have a copy book where I have kept passages from novels that have struck me as apt or as interesting prose. As I was finishing up my Ph.D. in one of the sciences at one of the other Ivies, I typed them up, printed them out, cut them into strips, and slipped them into all the bound copies of journals that I had pulled to check references. Putting them in journals rather than books was probably a poor choice, as they seem destined to disappear soonest (in favor of more economical electronic copy), but the thought of some serious grad student stumbling across Kundera or Dostoevsky so far out of context was irresistable. I only wish I had started the project sooner….


Stefanie Murray 11.06.03 at 11:00 pm

Our friend’s dad put a $50 bill in the bound copy of his dissertation in the library stacks. Every so often he goes back to check it…so far, the money’s still there.

Puts a new twist on the ‘treasure hunt’ theme. :)


mel 11.07.03 at 12:03 am

What was the book that Rawls and Viner checked out from Kieran’s post?


arthur 11.07.03 at 1:15 am

The coolest signature would be Albert Einstein. I’d bet he would have read anything that came out from one of his physicist buddies in the 40’s, especialy if it were in German, and that will take you to a small set of books in one section of the library.


praktike 11.07.03 at 1:16 am

how about dean cain?


eszter 11.07.03 at 3:42 am

Searching for traces of old encounters in books is fine, but a little selfish, don’t you think?

Tim – I don’t understand how “searching for” something like this can be selfish. Removing something like this may be selfish, but searching for it? I always have my digital camera with me, that’s my tool for collecting interesting things I encounter.

Stephanie – that’s a neat story about the $50 bill.

Arthur – that’s an interesting idea, it would probably be another library, but it’s worth looking into.


James 11.07.03 at 10:49 am

Stephanie – I’m keen to read your father’s Phd. Please could you post the details?


B. Coulmont 11.07.03 at 11:05 am

In Paris, at the Ecole normale supérieure, it is still possible to find borrowing cards of books taken by people who forgot to bring them back or died (for example Paul Nizan or Cavailles). I’ve put Halbwachs and Merleau-Ponty… but I’m afraid those names aren’t well known in the US.


Chris Bertram 11.07.03 at 12:47 pm

Halbwachs is known to me as the author/editor of a wonderful combined commentary on and edition of Rousseau’s Du Contrat Social (very useful to me when writing my own book) and highly recommended.


Paul 11.07.03 at 1:36 pm

I once found an ex-Vanderbilt copy of William Empson’s Poems borrowed by Randall Jarrell in September 1937, just about the time Jarrell and Robert Lowell chucked Vandy for Kenyon College. Interestingly, not long after, (according to Pritchard’s bio of Jarrell), John Crowe Ransom would complain to Allen Tate that too much Empson was ruining Jarrell’s poetry. Pritchard writes:

“But a month later, [Spring ’38] again writing to Tate, [Ransom] returned to the subject of this “this very strange boy” whose career prospects looked dubious. Jarrell’s poetry, said Ransom, was almost ruined by attempting to put William Empson’s doctrine of ambiguity into practice, while ‘as a teacher he’s extremely animated when he is interested, and spares no pains, and gets pretty good results; but the other day he asked me if I ever got bored, and intimated that this was rather his stock condition teaching Freshman. A man of his age and ill prospects has no business getting bored by his job.'”

I photocopied the card and passed a few around as a sort of keepsake for all of us bored by jobs we can’t afford to be bored by.


Thlayli 11.07.03 at 5:30 pm

Brooke Shields would be a real coup, as I expect she didn’t leave a whole lot of autographs in the stacks.


Keith N 11.08.03 at 12:07 am

There used to be a card with Kurt Godel’s signature on it, in an OCT of Aristotle’s On the Soul or some such up in the Firestone stacks. Small, neat, ink.


Maureen 11.08.03 at 8:35 pm

Even better–buying a book in Robert Braidwood’s personal library, with his signature inside. For $1. Thank you, Regenstein book sale!

(Dr. Braidwood is said to be the inspiration for the U of C’s most famous fictional alumnus, Indiana Jones)

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