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Handling old books by the public

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    • #139743
      David C

      During the summer, volunteers staff a one-room schoolhouse in our town. The interior is set up with books, maps, desks and stove like it would have been in the early 1900’s. The contents of the schoolhouse are owned by our Historical Society. The volunteers work under the direction of the town.

      Ever since the schoolhouse was opened to the public (1980’s), the public has been free to roam the whole interior, sit at the desks, take books off the shelves open them and read them. I’m not thrilled allowing the public to take books off the shelves. Last year I did an inventory before the schoolhouse was opened for the summer and again in the late fall when the schoolhouse was closed for the winter. Out of about 350 books, 6 are now missing.

      I’m curious if anyone else has a one-room schoolhouse and if so, do you cordon off part of the interior where books might be? I have suggested we not allow our books to be handled, but others want visitors to freely take books off the shelves and read them. They insist books were meant to be opened and read rather than just have the cover or the book’s spine looked at. Many of our books date back to the late 1800’s.

      David Cranston, Curator
      Hadley-Lake Luzerne Historical Society
      52 Main St – PO Box 275
      Lake Luzerne, NY

    • #139748
      Jeannie Whited

      Have you considered buying some prop books, and removing any that have actual historic or financial value? Used book sites such as have literally hundreds of antique books for very little money. For example, I put in a search for books published 1860-1900 with “primer” in the keyword, for under $5, and got things like v.2 of the Collected Works of Shakespeare, Methode Berlitz, and Physical Geography (among others). You might also work out something with a used book store – they can seldom sell such books for anything other than props or to be cut up for artwork.

      Much as we hate to say it, not all old books have value. And it sounds like blocking off the shelves changes the nature of the experience. But if you must, you could take plex and just screw or clip it on – it probably wouldn’t look great though.

      It also sounds like you have some solid numbers to give your volunteers when training them about interacting with the public. Station someone near the books, maybe have a couple out and invite folks to flip through those. If it’s that serious an issue, ban packpacks, large totes, etc.

    • #140483
      Ron Kley

      The best answer here may depend upon the exact nature of the books in the old schoolhouse. Are they confidently attributable to use by students and/or teachers in that school, or are they merely generic old schoolbooks of the sort that might have been used there or in other schools of that time in your area? In the first case I’d say that they have historical significance to your community, and that their handling should be limited for the sake of their long-term preservation — i.e., off-limits to casual browsing, and perhaps secured in a locked cabinet if pilferage is a problem as your question suggests. If there are any names other annotations written in that might be of special interest, those pages might be copied photographically and made available for browsing.

      As previously suggested, the odds are that copies of the same or similar books from the same time period could be obtained at very little cost on the used book market. Better yet, if you put out a notice of what you’re looking for through your state museum association or library association you might very well find another institution that would be able, willing and even eager to help meet your needs. Many such instiutions regularlyn turn away offers of old school books that lack any documentable association with soecific persons or places.

      If the schoolhouse books are generic rather than specific to that school, or at least to your community, I’d suggest that visitors be allowed to peruse them at will. It will enhance their experience; any “wear and tear” will be minuscule; and, at least for the foreseeable future, equally generic replacements will be easily and inexpensively available.

    • #140484
      David C

      Thank you Ron (and Jeannie),

      Some of the books are more or less generic and could have been used in any one-room schoolhouse. The majority of them were used locally and have either the old School District number in them or a student’s name from the area. A few books have the name of a former local lending library from the 1930’s.

      Since we have 8-10 generic books on each of the 10 or so desks, I have put clear plastic over the front of the bookcases. Granted, the plastic does not look great, but it gives the impression it IS a Museum and visitors should not be handling everything in sight. One never knows what was used to coat or give an object the color that it has. Perhaps later this summer (when I find the time) I’ll go through the books and remove the generic books and make them available for visitors to look through.

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