This post was written by Nora Slominsky, New-York Historical Society Graduate Archival Research Fellow
A key figure in the politics of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Rufus King was a powerful Federalist senator, diplomat, and attorney. In his very limited spare time, he also built and maintained one of the largest personal libraries in the Early Republic. This collection, consisting of approximately 3,500 pieces, remains largely intact at the New-York Historical Society. Donated by King’s descendants in 1906, the library provides a unique lens into his political, economic and legal thought-processes. King kept extensive records and notes on and in his books, linking the materials to the development of his own positions and arguments. In doing so, he mitigated many of the dilemmas that present-day historians face when analyzing evidence in personal libraries: if someone owns a book, does that reflect their opinion on the subject of the text or even more simply, does it mean they even read it?
Because of King’s particular relationship with his library, these questions are far more answerable. For example, David Gary, the Kaplanoff Librarian for American History at Yale University, has published an article on King’s use of commonplace books in historical inquiry and has looked at King’s library extensively in his dissertation, which has been an invaluable resource for this post. During my time as a fellow, I have been looking at a series of questions that relate more specifically to its current state: when did a book enter the Library, who put it there, and is it still a part of the collection? Not every piece in the Library originated with King but were added by his son and grandson prior its donation to the N-YHS. More recently, many of the books were catalogued electronically as well in the BobCat system (www.bobcat.nyu.edu/nyhistory). Some volumes in the collection were dispersed over time, however, so the card and slip catalogues are now the only complete record of what texts the King family handed over to the N-YHS over a century ago.
The continuities and discrepancies between the slip catalogue and the card catalogue are fascinating. Although King had intended for the library to be divided amongst his children, his oldest son, John Alsop King purchased the shares of his brothers and kept the library intact. Upon his death, King’s grandson, Charles Ray King, inherited it and created the slip catalogue in the late nineteenth century. It was Ray King’s widow and niece, Nancy and Mary, who raised the necessary funds to keep the collection together to be given to the N-YHS. The card catalogue was put together once the collection arrived by librarian Robert H. Kelby and others at N-YHS. While the majority of the entries correlate – there is a note for a text in both systems—there are several points where there is a notation in just one catalogue. This could be for a variety of reasons, but when there is only one entry, it provides a flag for librarians and archivists. Sometimes, there is no mention of the entry in BobCat, which is a signal that the text in question was one of those deaccessioned in the past. Sometimes, there is no mention of the entry in BobCat, which is a signal that the text in question may still be part of a backlog of books that have not yet been catalogued online. As you can see in the image on the left below, this particularly entry describes the 12th edition of William Blackstone’s foundational work, Commentaries on the Laws of England.
It corresponds directly with the slip catalogue on the right, which more frequently contains texts published after King’s death. However, there are also instances where a book only appears on the slip and not the card: another work by Blackstone, Treatise on the Law of Descents in Fee-Simple, has the single entry. This is an indication that the book on the slip belonged to one of King’s descendants and thus either never made it to the N-YHS or was put in a different collection. Both works are catalogued in BobCat and accessible to any researcher.
It is not surprising to find Commentaries listed in either of these catalogues: King was a lawyer and Blackstone’s analysis was already essential reading during King’s lifetime. Yet, for my particular project, which focuses on copyright and trans-national political economy in the 18th and early 19th centuries, finding Blackstone in King’s library reiterates the significance of these collections as a nexus of intellectual and literary labor. The collecting of collections is an invaluable source of materials for anyone looking to analyze texts both in their own right and as material evidence in broader historical episodes. The slip and the card catalogue reflect different moments in the development of King’s library and that of his family. In this sense, they are, in and of themselves, importance artifacts in the quick-paced history of communication.