Harvard College Library

Res Gestae: Libri Manent; A Curator’s Choice on Display at Houghton Library

January 16, 2004 -- For the last 41 years Roger E. Stoddard, Curator of Rare Books in the Harvard College Library, has discovered, purchased, and presented to scholars some of the most famous, unusual, and sought after books and manuscripts in the world – rare works and first editions by Tennyson, Goethe, Theophrastus, and countless others. During his tenure, Stoddard added some 65,000 books and manuscripts to the Rare Books collection at Houghton Library. The exhibition Res Gestae: Libri Manent; A Curator’s Choice, celebrates Stoddard’s career and highlights 89 of the curator’s favorite acquisitions.

This illustration from the title page of a rare Dutch songbook is featured in the exhibition, Res Gestae: Libri Manent; A Curator’s Choice, in the Edison and Newman Room of Houghton Library.
"Recently, when Kurt Masur [conductor] concluded the performance of a world premier he took the score off his music stand and held it up for the audience to applaud. In just that spirit do librarians hold out for your applause the books they have chosen for you: they believe that they maintain and enrich the irreplaceable patrimony of their colleges and universities. Will you agree? Take a good look, take a new look, look around at them. Your books, our books," wrote Roger E. Stoddard in the introduction to the exhibition catalogue.

The exhibition explores how Stoddard built on the established strengths of the Houghton collection, while forging new avenues of material never before collected. The first five cases are examples of items that enhanced existing collections and are organized by subject: National Literatures, Classical Tradition and Renaissance Latin, Science & Philosophy, and Arts. A copy of Jonathan Swift’s A modest proposal for preventing the children of poor people from being a burthen to their parents, or the country, and for making them beneficial to the publick (Dublin: S. Harding, 1729) is on display, purchased by Stoddard at an auction in New York City. A series of authors’ first books includes Biednye liudi ("Poor Folks") by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1847, which established him as a writer and which Stoddard found in an antiquarian bookshop in Paris.

The additional exhibition cases demonstrate how Stoddard extended the collection in new ways including Marks in Books, European Britannica, New Authors, Internationals, and Uncommon Rare Books. In these cases lie the first edition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Cien anos de soledad in pictorial wrappers, as well as a copy of a collection of poems, in which pages xxv-xxviii are slit for cancellation, containing the only known original version of Coleridge's "Monody on the death of Chatterton."

"Learning the collections is the first step toward improving them. Learning the market means discovering what is available for sale. To most people that means reading the published catalogues of bookdealers and auctioneers, but the real world lies on the shelves of booksellers at the source," says Stoddard, who goes on to tell stories of scouring bookshops in basements and personal estates, opening as many books as possible, never sure what treasure he might find. He notes getting up in the middle of the night to be the first to call a bookdealer overseas who had sent out a catalogue containing a particularly interesting item, and always keeping his eyes open for "the book you didn’t know you wanted."

Stoddard, who holds additional appointments as Senior Lecturer on English and Senior Curator in the Houghton Library, will retire on December 31, 2004. But until then, he will keep a list of books he would still like add to the collection close at hand. "The books you do not have are the ones which compel your interest," he writes.

The exhibition Res Gestae: Libri Manent; A Curator’s Choice will be shown in the Edison and Newman Room of the Houghton Library through March 31, 2004. A symposium in coordination with the exhibition entitled, Acquisitions for Historical Collections, will be held on Monday, March 22 at 2:00pm, at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum. For details on the exhibition or symposium, call Roger Stoddard at 617-495-2442.


This story appears courtesy of the Harvard College Library Communications Office
Copyright © 2004 President and Fellows of Harvard College