An Historian Views the Everett D. Graff Collection

Ray Allen Billington, Newberry Library Bulletin, December 1960

The working historian and the collector usually view books differently, for each has his set of values. The collector may be primarily interested in rarity and condition; his prize possession is apt to be the uncut volume in original boards, so rare that no other copy is known. The significance of its contents need not be his major concern. The historian, on the other hand, is generally little moved by a book's appearance or scarcity, and is deeply interested only in its contribution to human knowledge. He views books functionally; they are usable objects important only for what they tell him of the past. He finds the superbly preserved early Kentucky imprint of little interest if its pages are only a reprint of the standard catechism, but will grow ecstatic over a tattered copy of a comparatively common book which contains a fine contemporary description of the Kentucky community in which it was printed.

In the light of these standards, does the collection of Western Americana assembled by Everett D. Graff, 375 volumes of which have recently been presented to the Newberry Library, have any appeal to the professional historian? The answer – a resounding yes – can be appreciated only by those aware of the relative scarcity of source materials dealing with the history of America's westward-moving frontier, as well as of Mr. Graff's standard of collecting: the books truly significant in their revelation of western American history, in the finest possible copies.

 

Even those essential manuscript materials – government documents, journals of explorers and soldiers, ledgers of trading companies, and the like – preserved in national and state archives tell only a part of the story of the American West. No historian would think of studying the Powder River War without consulting the extensive military manuscripts in the National Archives, or the fur trading companies that operated along the Missouri River without utilizing the rich documentary resources of the Missouri Historical Society. He will also have recourse, however, to the extensive printed record of frontier history bequeathed to him by the men and women who knew the pioneering experience.