The treasure seekers

Curators at the Rubenstein Library track down research-worthy artifacts, then help collectors let them go so that their lives' work can live on.
March 6, 2017

One pope was a woman, so the story goes. The year was 855 and even those attending her papal procession didn’t know she was not a man until she dropped to the ground and gave birth to a child. The tale of Pope Joan is told in Incominciano Le uite de Pontefici et imperadori Romani, or Lives of the Popes and Roman Emperors, which was published in 1478 by a monastic press at the Ripoli convent in Florence. Nuns typeset and bound the volumes and even were paid for their efforts.

There are a few known copies of this book. One appeared at an auction; it is a fragment. The other, until recently, was in the massive private collection of historian, philanthropist, and political activist Lisa Unger Baskin. Now, it belongs to Duke, where any student, professor, or researcher may (very gently) flip through pages printed by women more than half a millennium ago.

It's arrival at the university is a story of serendipity and savvy, a bounty bestowed via the work of the curators at the Rubenstein Library. In service to research, these curators hunt down collectors, then skillfully guide them through the process of letting go of artifacts acquired after decades of obsession, and help them see the value of sharing their collections with the world.

Collections like Baskin’s, thought at the time to be the largest assemblage of women’s history and ephemera held in private hands in the U.S., are the cornerstone of university scholarship, shaping courses and new research, inspiring interdisciplinary work, and deepening the academic experience for all.

J. Andrew Armacost, head of collection development and curator for collections of the Rubenstein Library, has spent a dozen years working with donors and bibliophiles to bring their resources to Duke. He and the seven other curators, each with a different specialty, tap into a global network of booksellers and auction houses to track down and acquire materials for the university. “I think we have one of the best jobs in the world,” says Armacost. “We’re going out and meeting people and working to save things that wouldn’t otherwise be preserved.”

Many people don’t realize that what they have stored in their garage or attic is worth preserving until someone tells them, says Jacqueline Reid Wachholz, director of the Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History at the Rubenstein library. “Everyone has a story,” says Wachholz, who collects and catalogues the work and experiences of industry insiders, from copywriters to corporate bigwigs.

But, she adds, “unlike writers or public figures, advertising professionals don’t envision that their life’s work might end up in an archive at some point. It can be hard to get at those experiences.”

Among the center’s holdings are cookbooks produced by companies as diverse as Frigidaire appliances and Metropolitan Life insurance, ads for Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company, work created by the legendary J. Walter Thompson ad agency, and images of society women taken for Pond’s cold-cream ads. Several years ago, Wachholz made a rare find: the 1916 diary of a woman who worked for the in-house advertising division of Marshall Field’s department store in Chicago. “She’s a single woman, and her diary talks a lot about her career aspirations, her personal triumphs and tribulations. I really treasure it because it’s so early, fifty years before Peggy Olson [from Mad Men] would have existed.”

Mad Men was a Hartman Center obsession, of course. Wachholz came across an interview on the show’s website with Joy Golden, an advertising veteran in her eighties living in New York City, who was known for her witty radio ads. Wachholz cold-called Golden to see whether she had any materials that might find a home at Duke.

At first Golden demurred, but six months later she contacted Wachholz and invited her to her midtown apartment. “She’d saved quite a bit— recordings, speeches, manuscripts. There was a clear story to be told,” says Wachholz, adding that it was an emotional experience. “Letting someone into your life that you barely know, and letting them take all this material that reflects your whole career—she got teary eyes and gave me a big hug.

When the boxes were packed and in the lobby of her building awaiting FedEx, the doorman took a picture of Wachholz and Golden amidst the stack. “What struck me,” says Wachholz, “was how pleased and flattered she was that someone else thought this was important to save.”

Baskin, whose collection sprawled throughout her rambling, nineteenth-century white clapboard home, always “knew it would go to an institution, where it could be safe and used in a very broad, general way,” she says. The same local colleges borrowing pieces for classes would ask when she planned to part with it, and she would reply, “When I’m ready, you’ll know.”

But that was before multiple tornadoes ripped through a nearby town, and Hurricane Irene churned up the Connecticut River Valley, sweeping away covered bridges. The same fall, an early snowstorm took down trees and electrical lines, knocking out power. And then, a friend’s house was struck by lightning and completely destroyed.

When the weather vane atop her barn began to spin, so did Baskin’s worries. She felt too anxious to leave her house, fearing what might happen to the collection. “I spent forty-five years finding all this, protecting it,” she says. “How could I expose it just to have it around me?”

In June 2012, another extreme storm hit, but this one brought a felicitous encounter: Baskin’s son, Hosea, owner of Cumberland Rare Books, had been in California at the annual meeting of an antiquarian books and manuscripts organization. Rubenstein Library curator Armacost also was there. Thunderstorms delayed their flights, and both were stranded in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport.

Because they ran in the same bibliophile circles and had known each other professionally for years, they fell into conversation. “He was thinking about the right sort of home for it,” recalls Armacost. “Then he said, ‘Well, you should come up and see it.’ ”

On that first visit, Baskin showed him, among other pieces, the Charlotte Brontë needlepoint sampler and the Emma Goldman papers. Laura Micham, director of the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture, and John Gartrell, director of the John Hope Franklin Research Center for African American History and Culture, paid a visit next, in the summer of 2014. “This was about relationship- building,” says Micham, who has worked with donors and collectors for twenty years, fourteen at Duke. “Collectors want to know, ‘Will this be understood by everyone who comes after? Will it be cared for? Will it make the difference it made to me? Will it have the effect on others?’ ”

Building those relationships can take years of face-to-face contact, or it all can be sorted out in a few e-mails. Some donors want to visit the space where it will be kept and meet the staff involved. For others, a crucial point may be how the collection will be used in the classroom, or whether certain materials can be embargoed until a person’s death.

For Baskin, it was essential that her material be catalogued and described well so that it could be used by students and scholars. She also wanted to document the collection in situ with a photographer and oral historian Craig Breaden before it was moved.

Three other universities bid for the collection, but when the archival plans were presented, Baskin chose Duke. “What we do in no small measure is a huge bond of trust,” says Micham. “You talk them through the lifecycle of their documents. You talk them through the next chapters of their [materials’] lives. Everyone has a different set of priorities.”

Like Wachholz, Micham knows how difficult it can be for a donor to let go. “I’ve worked with so many donors and collectors and have had the experience of packing up and taking things away. There is liberation, but also mourning,” she says. “I had one woman say to me, ‘This is like taking off my skin.’ ”

The Baskin collection’s primary holdings run through the 1930s, but there’s a second, smaller collection of 1960s and ’70s material, too. The collection is unique, Armacost says, because it’s so quirky and spans centuries and innumerable topics: There are early midwifery manuals; the most complete set known of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Parker Pillsbury’s newspaper The Revolution; books and fragments of incunabula (books printed between 1455 and 1500); a manuscript from 1240; and reams of unpublished letters by female writers and activists. And then there’s the realia: pottery from the kilns of Hull House, suffrage lapel pins, employment pamphlets, and the crowd-pleaser of the collection, Virginia Woolf ’s writing desk.

“Each item is like a little thread you can pull, and ask, ‘Where does that story lead? Can I find other items related to that or this person?’ ” he says of Baskin’s approach to collecting.

Despite its size, few outside the rare-books world and women’s- studies programs knew of its existence. “It’s not that easy to find out about it Googling,” says Bingham Center director Micham. “Part of why she has been so successful as a collector is that she was very private.”

When Armacost and his moving team arrived at Baskin’s house, they worked on thinking about the collection in different categories. Different rooms stored different categories. Sections were packed separately. Books were stacked threedeep on some shelves. “There was historic material everywhere, just everywhere,” he recalls.

It would take them—a specialty moving company, art packers, and Duke staff with expertise related to the collection— ten days to pack. A friend asked Baskin how she could tolerate it. “I could not transmit to her how relieved I am, how my anxiety is diminished,” Baskin laughs. “I don’t have to worry about every story.”

A special art packer flew in to build a custom crate on site for the Woolf desk, which was then sealed in Tyvek and layers of foam. No one was taking any chances. Armacost, who is an avid photo-sharer like Baskin, still has pictures of the crate-building on his phone.

On the final day, the last boxes were loaded onto two trucks—for insurance purposes it was better to separate the collection—and the trucks drove off. “I don’t think anyone can be emotionally prepared for a moment like that,” says Armacost. On his phone is a picture of the empty library with its bare vermillion shelves, and on the moss-green wingback chair sits Baskin’s fox terrier, seemingly pleased to have the place to himself, finally.

That Baskin was able to part with the objects she had lived with and cherished for decades—all loaded into two trucks bound for a university to which she had no prior affiliation—is remarkable to Armacost. “I give her so much credit for tackling this,” he says. “There are so many people unable to resolve things like this, or to let them go. And it’s something very sophisticated in her ability to realize that it needs to be done, that it’s important, that it needs to be saved.”

That the curators are sensitive to the donors’ feelings is an acknowledgement that adding to the Rubenstein Library’s coffers is fully an act of scholarship. “Hopefully the things I get to identify and see and touch and feel will inform new histories that have yet to be written,” says Gartrell, director of the John Hope Franklin Research Center.

He remembers one of his first acquisitions for Duke, in early 2013, a cache of eighty letters and other documents from 1735 to 1859 belonging to Robert Anderson, a merchant, land owner, and former mayor of Williamsburg, Virginia, found in a book dealer’s catalogue. Among the letters of transaction for buying and selling slaves are letters from Anderson to his own daughter, Haidee, who had been sent to a school in New Jersey run by abolitionists. But Haidee had a secret: She was the daughter of Anderson and one of his slaves, with whom he had begun a relationship after his white wife died.

Gartrell was struck by the ways in which the letter resembled “a typical letter from father to daughter. He asks how her classmates are treating her, and tells her that everything is fine at home with her mother.” He asks her whether anyone at the school suspects that she is black. Other letters reveal a dilemma: If he frees his daughter, who remains his slave under law, he will never be able to see her again, because slaves freed in Virginia were required to leave the state within ninety days.

“This man is conflicted about freeing his daughter because he will never see her again,” says Gartrell. “For me that line of documentation flips what we think we know about the institution.” There are no surviving letters in Duke’s collection from Haidee to her father, and the mystery of what happened to her has stayed with Gartrell. “The trail goes cold,” he says. “Maybe one day I’ll be able to track down the rest of the story.”

Or, maybe a student will find clues in the Baskin collection’s abolitionist materials. Already other parts of the cache have proved fruitful. A scholar from Oxford, England, writing a book about the suffrage caravans that traveled from all corners to London, came to Duke to study an eighty-nine-page account of a suffrage pilgrimage from Baskin’s collection. The scholar found she could identify the unnamed women in the photographs from her previous research. What’s more, this new account had vital information about a fourth group that had been a mystery.

Armacost and Micham still e-mail or text Baskin regularly— her treasure hunting continues, as does theirs. “It’s something you can’t turn off after it’s finished,” Armacost says, referring to Baskin’s collecting pursuits as well as his own. “We compare notes about catalogues or auctions. Sometimes I’ll e-mail just to say, ‘I saw this great thing. Thought you’d like to see it, too.’ ”

Jarvis Flynn is a writer and editor who lives in Durham.