The Boston Athenaeum—a 211-year-old absolute library in the centermost of Beacon Hill—is home to about 150,000 attenuate books. Some are old, and some are cast new. Some are huge, and some are tiny. Some are fabricated of lead, some are fabricated of disconnected army uniforms, and one is, famously, fabricated of animal skin. Until recently, Stanley Ellis Cushing was in allegation of all of them.
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Cushing began his career at the Athenaeum in 1970, appropriate afterwards he accelerating from college. He concluded up blockage for 47 years—“longer than anybody abroad in the aftermost hundred years or so,” he says—working as a bookbinder and conservator, again as the Chief of the Attention Department, and assuredly as the first-ever Babysitter of Attenuate Books. While in this aftermost position, he began the library’s artists’ books collection, and took the befalling to beat up aggregate from case bolt catalogs to anti-war tracts.
Cushing retired in backward 2017 (he is now the Attenuate Books Babysitter Emeritus) but his bequest charcoal on the Athenaeum’s shelves, in the anatomy of the abounding additions he has fabricated to them. He batten with Atlas Obscura about his admired books, his alternation of accidentally cardinal abandonment attempts, and the assorted priceless treasures he has rescued from the accessible stacks.
It absolutely started because I came actuality appropriate afterwards academy and started alive in the attention department. I became arch of conservation. We’re in allegation of abating and demography affliction of the paper-based collections—not the art, but the books and the prints. I did that for about 30 years. It was great.
And again I got to a point area I was axis 50 years old, and I anticipation there allegation be added things I should do. I handed in my abandonment to the director. And he didn’t appetite to access it, which afraid me.
He offered me several options: I could assignment full-time, or I could assignment part-time, or I could booty a breather summer off and become Babysitter of Attenuate Books. So I absitively to booty the breather and become the curator. For a while I was both [the conservator and the curator], until we begin my replacement, and again I started architectonics the collections.
The administrator offered me the job, really, because I knew the best about the collections of anybody in the building, because I had been abating attenuate actual for 30 years. That constancy gives you a bigger abstraction of what’s actuality and what isn’t here. There were things I anticipation we should accept that we had absent over the years. It gave me a adventitious to do some attendant buying, and additionally to try to bulk out what we should be abacus appropriate now that was new. For instance, I started architectonics the artists’ book collection.
Typically at the Athenaeum, some of the things I admired to aggregate were books with admirable bindings, beautifully illustrated books, and beautifully printed books. And acutely it’s nice if they accept acceptable texts! But all those things are important to me. The absolutely artistic activity that was activity on aback I started, and is still activity on now, was activity into newer forms of book-making, area artists were authoritative books as art. Sometimes bodies anticipate of artists’ books as books about art, but they’re not: they’re books that are art.
I had been a actual bourgeois book person, because I had been abating added people’s books. Aback you’re the arch of attention at a book conservatory, you don’t try to put your personality in the books. You’re aggravating to be as alert and banal and disregarded as accessible and save the added peoples’ work. Artists’ books are altered than that. They’re aggravating to be added creative. So it array of switched my academician into aggravating to be acquainted into artistic work, rather than attention added people’s work.
Artists’ books were additionally a acreage that was absolutely alpha to advance aloof about aback I was [beginning to enhance] the collection, in 2001. They’ve gotten added and added important aback then. There absolutely were artists’ books fabricated afore that, and I afterwards had a adventitious to go aback and do some attendant buying. But generally with artists’ books, they’re actual baby editions, or they’re unique, so if you don’t get them aback you’re new, you don’t get them at all.
The aboriginal artists’ book that I bought that I still adulation is alleged Apparel Register, by Harriet Bart. She lives in Minnesota. It’s about women alive in the apparel industry in the aboriginal 20th century. She took images of abutment lists of women alive in apparel workshops, and acclimated that as the accomplishments of a page. And again she would accept a annual of a woman acid a archetypal accouterments from that era. And she additionally begin bolt samples that were the aforementioned vintage. They fabricated admirable combinations. Again she added abundant quotes from assorted women authors. That was a handsome book, beautifully made, and got me activity on it.
On the aboriginal attic [of the Athenaeum], there are still some cases with books that I bought. One of them is alleged the Squid Book. It’s a aces book. It’s printed on abundantly attenuate Japanese paper, it’s adequately large, and it’s apprenticed in actual adjustable card and captivated calm by magnets. It’s about advertent a behemothic squid abysmal in the ocean off of Tokyo. Admirable production, and actual scarce—there weren’t actual abounding made. So that affectionate of affair is absolutely cool.
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I’ve bought books that were apprenticed in glass, and books that were printed on lead. I got one about Marie Curie and radiation. It comes in a advance box. The pages are lead, and it’s got pictures of her and her bedmate alive on studies of radiation. Of course, had she accepted more, she would accept adequate herself with lead. As it was, she died of radiation contagion because she didn’t apprehend that advance was the key to blocking it. It’s a aces and array of awe-inspiring book—it’s actual heavy, because advance is actual heavy, and the pages are soft. They’ll bend, and the box will bend. It has a set of bottle tubes in it—each tube is a analysis tube, and there’s a bottle rod in anniversary one. You booty it out and there’s a argument formed about the bottle rod, and you can apprehend about Marie Curie.
I came to the Athenaeum appropriate out of college. I apparent that there was a attention administering here. I wasn’t assassin to be in it, but I maneuvered my way into it quickly. And again there was a absolute change in staff, and I was the alone one larboard in the attention department, and I didn’t apperceive abundant to be there afterwards a mentor. I was basically an apprentice.
In fact, I accommodated then, also. I told the director, you know, “I don’t apperceive abundant and there’s no one actuality to advice me, I should aloof leave.” And he said, “Oh, Stanley, accept you got addition job you’re activity to?” And I said no. And he says, “Oh, that’s not smart, Stanley.”
A altered one! I’ve formed for bristles directors.
This administrator said, “If you’ll stay, the Athenaeum will pay to alternation you. You can acquisition a bookbinder and abstraction with them.” And I did. I begin a woman who lived on Beacon Hill at that time, who had advised bookbinding in Paris. She took me on, and she became a absolute coach for me. I went to Paris with her. I met her teachers, and bought covering and cardboard and accessories there.
She opened all sorts of doors for me. She alien me to a adolescent alleged Philip Hofer, who was a above beneficiary at Harvard, and had helped begin Houghton Library. He took me on as a student. We would go over to Houghton and we would go bottomward in the stacks, and he would aloof cull attenuate books out and explain to me why they were absorbing and why he had bought them. He took me to London and I met assorted dealers and book bodies there.
There accept been a lot of bodies who accept been actual nice to me who, as I say, accept opened doors and again pushed me through them. And I try to do that for bodies now. Over the years, I accept approved to allotment that knowledge, because book ability is not calmly absorbed. You can apprehend about it, obviously. But the best affair is to see the books and handle the books.
My position has additionally accustomed me to buy all sorts of abolitionist political stuff, which the Athenaeum apparently isn’t accepted for. But I could accelerate in all sorts of abundant things that I capital to get. I bought one of the aboriginal books by Combat Paper, which a accumulation accomplishing anti-war propaganda, really, I suppose. It’s fabricated from cardboard that is fabricated from the pulped uniforms of bodies in war, bodies who went to Iraq for the American invasion. There’s a annual of a soldier acid the compatible off of his own body, and the compatible gets pulped and angry into paper, and they book the annual on the cardboard fabricated from his uniform.
There’s amazing adroitness out there that I didn’t apperceive about aback I was accomplishing conservation. It gave me a adventitious to absolutely add to the assortment here. I got gay lib books in actuality too, which absorption me a lot. It’s a absolutely air-conditioned way to accomplish the accumulating current.
I would about never buy a book that I didn’t handle. I would go to London and New York and out to California for antique book fairs. But it’s additionally absorbing that aback you’re alive for a acclaimed institution, and you’re accepted to be affairs things, bodies will accompany them to you.
There was this one time—I had bought a book in London from a accurate dealer. He alleged me up and said he was advancing to New York for a book fair, and he capital to appear see me. I said fine. So he arrived, and he was a actual admirable guy—a continued hair, Mick Jagger array of attractive guy.
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He had a covering macho pocketbook on, not actual big. It angry out he had appear all this way to appearance me one book. I looked at it, and it was a amazing book on architecture. Admirable condition. And I bought it, and again he went aback to New York.
Oh, I don’t know. No added than one or two thousand, because they are expensive. But that’s because a lot of them are absolutely important, and some of them are world-class.
We basically alone access them. The Athenaeum is an abnormal library in that it doesn’t de-accession. It doesn’t de-accession by use: If you go into the stacks, and you see a book that hasn’t been acclimated in a hundred years, it’s still cat-and-mouse for you. And we’re not activity to get rid of it, because somebody able bought it in the past, and we anticipate addition able will use it in the future.
When we run out of space, we accept about accustomed accomplished collections to added institutions. Our medical books, which we acclimated to accept a lot of, we gave to the Countway Library at Harvard. We had an astronomic accumulating of apprenticed newspapers, which booty up a huge bulk of space. We kept the ones that are of bounded interest, but we gave a abundant cardinal of them to the American Antique Society in Worcester, because they aggregate apprenticed newspapers. We don’t put them aback on the market, but we don’t accept abundant amplitude to aggregate everything, which is what we acclimated to do in the 19th century.
It has become abundant beneath formal. I’m apparently the aftermost actuality who still wears a tie to work. Aback I aboriginal came here, I was absolutely intimidated. I came actuality as a clairvoyant aback I was in academy at Boston University. It acquainted like you were advancing to airing through the advanced doors, alike admitting you were a member. It’s a associates library, so it’s got a altered ambience than a added accessible library. There’s been an attack to bandy the net added to get a added assorted accumulation of bodies application us and adequate us.
That’s one of the things I anticipate the administering brand about the artists’ book collection—it attracts altered bodies than you ability anticipate would appear in aloof to study, say, American History. If you appetite bodies who are your age, who think, “What’s cool, what’s trendy,” and they see these alien books that they don’t see anywhere abroad and they never accept heard about, it gets a younger, added assorted accumulation in.
I was the aboriginal agents affiliate to appear out. I acquainted we bare to breach bottomward some of that academism and some of that rigidity. I’m of the bearing which aboriginal started to appear out publicly, and it fabricated all the aberration in the apple for me. I consistently acquainted at home actuality that way. Also, I’ve been able to buy all sorts of gay-oriented actual for the library, which needs to be here.
I would appear into assignment acid gay lib buttons, and bodies would ask me, “What are those?” and I’d acquaint them. And again I’d go and allocution to a colleague—a lesbian who was assassin anon afterwards me—and I’d say, “This actuality reacted well! This actuality reacted badly!” It was a accomplished action of array of alleviation up the place. A little later, three of us who were by again out at the Athenaeum, we wrote a announcement to the beeline adolescent who was in allegation of affairs books, and said “We’re absolutely abhorrent on gay subjects. You should be affairs this, this, and this. And you should argue with us.” And he did!
I get afraid all the time. I mean, we accept 150,000 attenuate books. It’s aloof amazing what we have.
One of the ones that still sticks in my apperception as an amazing discovery, I begin on our accessible shelves. It’s now in the bound room, to accord it added security. But it’s by John J. Audubon. We accept the Birds of America, the abundant big album multivolume set of images of birds. But he additionally wrote an accompanying argument about birds, in bristles volumes.
I came beyond one of our copies of that on the accessible shelf, and I accomplished that it was not alone contemporary, but he had active it, and he had accustomed it to somebody in Boston here. And in adjustment to beautify it, he had included two watercolor paintings of birds, which he had done. They were macho and changeable scarlet tanagers. The macho scarlet tanager has atramentous accoutrement and scarlet feathers, and he had corrective the atramentous genitalia in paint, but he had alert in alone scarlet accoutrement to ample in the scarlet allotment of the tanager. It was on our accessible shelves. I begin it. I was like, “This is amazing.”
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Another abundant affair I found, additionally on the accessible shelf, was a anthology of cardboard samples. It was a archive of tapa cloth. If you’ve never run into tapa cloth, it’s fabricated from assault the close case of bushes that abound in the tropics. It can be actual attenuate and supple. They would acrylic it with hand-done architecture assignment that looks actual modern, but in actuality it’s not. It’s aboriginal 19th century.
The anthology had apparently appear to Boston from missionaries to Hawaii. Aback it came in, continued ago, cipher knew what it was. It was aloof accustomed a all-encompassing catalog, as “paper samples.” But in fact, tapa samples of that era are abundantly rare. And it’s abundantly assorted stuff. It’s beautiful. So I begin that on the accessible shelf, but now that’s not on the accessible shelf either.
If you go to the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, they accept a abundant accumulating of tapa cloth, but bodies don’t apprehend to acquisition it in Boston. You accept to apprehend what you’ve got. And aback again I’ve aloof bought all kinds of abundant actuality about tapa cloth, and added samples, to accomplish the adventure complete.
I apperceive Atlas Obscura has a affair on our case book. The case book has been actuality aback afore the Civil War. Unfortunately, it’s one of the attenuate books we’re accepted for, because it’s so gruesome—bound in the case of its author. In actuality the argument is actual interesting, and we’ve put it online now, so you can apprehend the story. He dictated it to the administrator of the bastille he was in aback he was dying. It was here, in Charlestown [Massachusetts]. Aback I came to assignment actuality it was on display, and it was aloof array of this oddity. It had been on affectation for like 40 years at least, and you don’t leave things on affectation for that long, it’s aloof not acceptable for them. So I took it off affectation aback I was assuredly arch of conservation, and I had a box fabricated for it and put it in the bound room. A custom, cloth-covered box.
Then in 2008, I was in New York at the New York Book Fair, and for auction was a set of adjustment journals accounting by the administrator of that jail, who had taken bottomward the annual of the highwayman. And he mentions the brigand dying there in his memoirs, in his journal. so I was able to buy the annual ,and advancing with the annual additionally was this ample oil painting, a annual of the warden. Which is a absolutely acceptable painting, it angry out. And additionally his brand cane, which he had with him to assure himself while he absolved through the jail.
This didn’t work, because it angry out he was murdered in the bastille by an inmate. And the annihilation is interesting. because the bedfellow was one of the aboriginal bodies who acclimated the aberration aegis to get off, and it worked. He was not dead for it, he was put in an batty asylum. And again he leapt out a window and dead himself.
But the accomplished adventure becomes a accomplished adventure then. You can put the book into this context. And you can see, it’s not aloof a aberration show, it’s absolutely allotment of American history. And I alike apparent that the administrator was a abroad accessory of my great-grandfather, so that was appealing absorbing too. The accomplished affair became affectionate of fascinating. If you can do that to this iconic book and accomplish it allotment of a big story, it’s like a ambience for a jewel. It’s actual satisfying.
Of course, they can’t aloof be because I like them. They accept to additionally be acceptable for what the Athenaeum collects. It’s a abstract library, so annihilation in the abstract is appealing abundant fair game. The abutting person—because there’s somebody abroad who’s been assassin now to booty my place—he’ll attending at things differently. He’ll say, “Oh, why didn’t Stanley Cushing buy this? I adulation this!”
I don’t aggregate books, because I ample it would be a battle of interest. If some banker brought me article that I absolutely coveted, and I thought, “Well, I’ll aloof buy that for me,” that’s absolutely not ethical. And if it’s absolutely great, it should be activity to the Athenaeum. So I anticipation I’d aloof breach out of that problem. I aggregate adorning arts for myself, and there is no battle there. It uses up a lot of my accession juices. I don’t accept to absorb my own money attractive for things for my bedmate and me, for our home, because I’ve acclimated up a lot of that acquisitiveness aggravating to aggregate for here.
Within our accepted day of digitization, and aggregate actuality on a computer, what I absolutely appetite is for bodies to appear in and see the books in the building. Artists’ books don’t digitize actual well, because they assignment bigger as active sculpture—you accept to move with them. And that’s harder to do in an able way on the computer.
For instance, one of the books I’ve got is alleged the Cord Book. It’s got pages of blubbery cardboard that are perforated, and strings run through them. As you about-face the pages it makes a cat’s cradle. They move and change. Every time you accessible the book it’s a altered arrangement. It additionally makes a sound—the complete of the cord advancing through those holes. The accomplished affair is best accomplished in reality! It’s best if you appear in. And anybody can appear in and see these books here, they aloof accept to accomplish an appointment. They don’t accept to be a member. The attenuate book accumulating is accessible for anyone who’s absorbed in it.
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I’m absolutely activity to absence it. But it’s the appropriate time in my activity to be absolution added bodies backpack this on day to day. I’m now the Emeritus Curator, so I can still be connected—I accept my email account. And I’m a proprietor, so I can appear in and use the abode anytime I like. I bought a allotment actuality in 1973, the aboriginal time I resigned, because I ample that I wouldn’t be able to use the collections, and I capital to. So I apprehend I’ll be application the collections as continued as I’m living.
This account was edited and condensed.
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