Unpacking the Personal Library: The Public and Private Life of Books – edited by Jason Camlot and J.A. Weingarten

Before I dive into my review of this anthology, I must tell you something: I’m a librarian. I have worked as a librarian for almost eight years, and in that time, I’ve worked exclusively in what are known as special libraries. My current library, which I’ve managed for seven years, is a hospital library, and it’s a working library: it’s not meant to house anything historical. It’s purely for current practice, to support the hospital staff and physicians. We do not preserve anything, we remove titles from the collection often and usually with gusto. My work, which is on the far end of refusing to retain anything for a long time, almost certainly colours how I read this anthology, which deals far more with the historical, the archival, and the deeper meanings of a collection.

Unpacking the Personal Library: The Public and Private Life of Books is a set of essays dealing with the different kinds of personal libraries, split into two sections: the private libraries which have transformed into more public collections, and the personal libraries and what they reveal about their owners. For those interested in collections and their role as a political and reputational tool, this is certainly fascinating. While I work in a relatively new hospital and so the library was not formed from the private collection of a physician (as many of them are, including two in the system I work within), I’m familiar with the concept, and so I was most immediately compelled by Anna Dysart’s chapter, titled “William Osler and the Collecting of the Middle Ages,” which details the collection of Osler, which is housed in his namesake library at McGill University. The Osler Library of the History of Medicine is the foremost medical archive in Canada, and Dysart explores the creation of it, noting what was excluded by Osler as telling as what he did collect.

Other chapters deal with the personal library of Al Purdy, the museum and splitting of the collection of Mackenzie King, the shift from print collections to digital collections in the university library (which I personally thought kind of glossed over the problems with pricing and profit built into digital collections, though I recognize that was not the point of the chapter), and other insightful analyses of personal collections of books. Even though I was reading the collection through the lens of someone who manages a working library, and someone who is less interested in the history of the books and archival practices (though I am very glad I have colleagues who are interested in it!), I still found a fair bit in this anthology to ponder over, and bring into both my personal library and my professional life. For those without quite the same intersection of interests, if you enjoy the history of books, libraries, and the provenance of different titles, this is something that will reward you well for the time spent on reading it.

About the Author

Jason Camlot is Professor of English and Research Chair in Literature and Sound Studies at Concordia University. Recent books include Phonopoetics (Stanford, 2019), CanLit Across Media (MQUP, 2019) and Vlarf (MQUP 2021). He is director of the SSHRC-funded SpokenWeb research partnership that focuses on literary audio collections.

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J.A. Weingarten is a Professor in the School of Language and Liberal Studies at Fanshawe College. He is also the author of Sharing the Past (UTP, 2019), as well as more than three dozen articles, book reviews, and papers on Canadian arts and culture.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Wilfrid Laurier University Press (July 1 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 288 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1771125683
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1771125680

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