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Inside the mind of a collector

An undergraduate research fellow traces the origins of the John Work Garrett Library
Posted February 10, 2014
Abigail Sia conducts research in the John Work Garrett Library. Abigail Sia conducts research in the John Work Garrett Library.

Abigail Sia, Class of 2015, recently discovered that in 1926, collector John Work Garrett purchased a letter penned by Thomas Jefferson to George Washington during the Revolutionary War. She also discovered the name of the rare book dealer that helped him acquire the letter (A.S.W. Rosenbach) and the cost of the letter ($95.33). But more significantly, she learned through her archival research—funded by a Dean of Libraries Sheridan Society Undergraduate Research Award (DURA)—to piece together clues from the past in order to tell a story for future generations. In other words, she learned to think and act like a scholar.  

The Jefferson letter is part of a rare collection of autographs from the Signers of the Declaration of Independence that was amassed—along with thousands of other rare books and manuscripts—by T. Harrison Garrett and his son John Work Garrett, cultural and philanthropic leaders of their generations. The collection, known as the John Work Garrett Library, is housed in the university’s Evergreen Museum and contains some 30,000 volumes of material including: the first four folios of Shakespeare’s collected plays; one of the earliest illustrated editions of Columbus’ letter announcing the discovery of the New World; and the internationally recognized Laurence Hall Fowler Collection of Architectural History. But, Sia’s favorite part of the library is the Signers Collection. 

“John Work Garrett wasn’t satisfied with just a signature that was taken out of a book, he wanted letters with interesting content to give his collection more substance,” the international studies major from Long Island said. She discovered this and other fascinating facts about how the library came together, including Garrett’s taste as a collector and his buying practices, while using the DURA grant to conduct research for Earle Havens, the William Kurrelmeyer Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts last summer. In the process, Sia dug through over seven large boxes containing thousands of pieces of archival material that the Sheridan Libraries received when Garrett bequeathed the collections of Evergreen Museum & Library to the university and the Evergreen House Foundation in his will. Her findings will be published in 2015 in a book on the history of Evergreen, co-authored by Havens and James Archer Abbott.

Sia, who has always had an amateur interest in rare books, became even more intrigued by the subject after taking two intersession courses with Dr. Havens where she and the other students were able not only to hear about these rare books, but to get their hands on them as well. When the research fellowship opportunity arose, Havens knew that she would be a perfect fit.    

“We know more about what John Work Garrett thought and how he developed as a leading antiquarian book collector, as a result of Abigail’s research,” Havens said. For example, he was a careful collector and was frugal in his purchases. This was seen over and over again in the letters that Sia studied between Garrett and the book dealers. “He would often write ‘I think that is too expensive. I couldn’t possibly pay that much.’ He was extremely discriminating and deeply concerned about the condition and quality of the books he collected.  I couldn’t have figured that out, with this level of specificity, without Abigail selecting things that lead me to that conclusion,” Havens said.  

Although this type of work can be quite challenging, it can also be extremely satisfying when you find that one needle in hundreds of haystacks that makes your subject come alive.  This is the work that a real scholar does. “Good historians will spend the majority of their time going through material that they will never end up using.  But the clues that they do find are hugely important, and in some cases, they can reconstruct aspects of our shared history that are completely new,” Havens said.

Thanks to her research award, Sia realized that in addition to her other interests and activities—she is a writer for The Politik Press (the student-run, opinion-based policy newspaper), a member of Alpha Phi Omega community service fraternity, a staff member for the JHU Model United Nations Conference, and a violinist in the Hopkins Chamber Orchestra—she has a passion for research and analysis. These skills should serve her well as she pursues a career in public policy after graduation.