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Five Questions with Jacqueline Coleburn, Rare Book Cataloger, Rare Book Reading Room

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This post is by Jacqueline Coleburn of the Library of Congress.

Jacqueline Coleburn
Jacqueline Coleburn

Describe what you do at the Library of Congress and the materials you work with.

I am a rare book cataloger – that means I analyze, describe, and provide online access to information about books destined for the Library’s rare book reading room and vault.

Currently I am working on the Library’s rare American children’s books. This is particularly rewarding work for me because children’s literature is such an excellent window into the priorities and values of a time and place. I enjoy learning about American history, and this collection shows the evolution of ideas as our country grew. While the books may not tell us what was actually going through the minds of the children in any given era, they can give us barrels of information on what the parents, teachers, and religious leaders were thinking and wanted to impress upon their young minds. We have everything from sermons to children by Cotton Mather  in 1707, to first editions of Horatio Alger’s many rags to riches stories, to a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland inscribed by Lewis Carroll.

The most common question I get about my job is, What makes a book rare? The answer is too complex for a paragraph or two here, but suffice to say that many things factor into the Library considering a book rare, including age, scarcity, historical significance, monetary value, and provenance. The rare book stacks hold more than 800,000 books and other printed items and include medieval manuscripts, Thomas Jefferson’s library, and pristine copies of first editions of Harry Potter books.

Sometimes it is a book’s former owner that makes it historically significant. I enjoy telling people about our Susan B. Anthony Collection. These nineteenth century books and pamphlets would not necessarily be considered rare or special on their own, but as a collection it is a true gold mine for students of the suffrage and women’s rights movements in the United States. She not only gave the Library her collection, but also inscribed the books, telling us why each one was significant in her life and work.

Do you have a favorite item from the Library’s online collections?

That’s a tough one. A Little Pretty Pocket-book, printed by Isaiah Thomas in 1787, is one favorite. It’s an important book in that it exemplifies the change from purely didactic literature for children to a realization that children learn best when instruction is mixed with amusement.

A Pretty Little Pocket Book, 1787
A Little Pretty Pocket-book, 1787


From A Pretty Little Pocketbook, 1787
From A Little Pretty Pocket-book, 1787

There’s a lot going on in this tiny book. Page 43 has what we believe to be the first use of the word “base-ball,” with an illustration showing how different the game must have been in the eighteenth century, including the bases which look like stakes or pillars.

I also love the toy tie-ins announced in its ridiculously long title page, typical in books for adults and children of the time. “A little pretty pocket-book: intended for the instruction and amusement of little Master Tommy, and pretty Miss Polly: with two letters from Jack the giant-killer, as also a ball and pincushion, the use of which will infallibly make Tommy a good boy, and Polly a good girl …” The book came with a ball for a boy or a pincushion for a girl – an eighteenth century literary Happy Meal.

Share a time when an item from the collections sparked your curiosity.

I was entranced with the Illustrated Alphabet, published in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1863, long before I learned that it is very rare and one of only three known copies. It is not a fancy book – it is a rhyming alphabet book with big, fat letters printed in blue and orange. Within each letter is an illustration of something agricultural, wheat in the “W,” eggs in the “E.”

Two points come to mind about this book. We are never just teaching children to read, we are teaching them who they are, or more to the point, who “we” are. The Illustrated Alphabet is teaching southern children that they are members of an agricultural society at the same time as teaching them the alphabet with images they should recognize. The book also demonstrates how important children’s literature can be to a society: this book was printed during the American Civil War, a time of great upheaval, and still there was the time, energy, and interest to print an alphabet book.

Tell us about a memorable interaction with a K-12 teacher or student.

Almost ten years ago I gave a tour of the Library to the friends of a friend who were visiting from Florida. Victoria, their twelve year old, was smitten. During the tour I mentioned that a researcher needed to be at least sixteen to use the Library’s collections. At dinner that night she announced to her father that for her sixteenth birthday all she really wanted was a reader’s card at the Library of Congress. Well, four years later, on her birthday, who comes to the Library but young Victoria. She got that coveted reader’s card and spent the afternoon with me, in the reading room, studying significant books in American history. Her next visit was as a college freshman, having taken a course in medieval manuscripts. I let her teach me about a beautiful manuscript book of hours from the rare book collection.   

What’s one thing you’d like to tell teachers about the materials that you work with or the collections in general?

What I most want teachers to know about our collections is that they are here. The doors of the rare book reading room are open. We work all day every day to make the books available to teachers, scholars, artists, and anyone else with an interest in our collections. No engraved invitation necessary – get a reader’s card and our world is yours.

Comments (6)

  1. Nice post! Too bad the boy gets a toy, and the girl gets something to work with, but what wonderful things! We are so lucky to own these special treasures, and to have staff who understand them.

  2. I am interested in document and books about the history of mathematics, specially, arab publication and documents, in this feild.
    May I know how to get informations abouts this subject?
    I am asking u because I suppose that many of those document you have in this feild are classified “rares books”
    Thank you

    • Good afternoon,

      You can review our online catalog for the specific titles of interest and then work with your local library to obtain the titles through inter-library loan. If you have questions regarding specific titles you can use the Ask A Librarian service to obtain additional assistance. Please do realize that if the items are rare or fragile and cannot be sent using inter-library loan you would need to come to the Library in person to use them. Best wishes.

  3. As a children’s author and librarian and historian, this is especially meaningful to me. Thanks for sharing.

  4. for Danna Bell, so good to see your byline again…i remember you well from my trip for the American Memory Fellows Institute of 2001. What an experience! I still treasure it.

    Does the library still provide these fellowships to educators?

    Dana Stone (Durham, NC)

    • Dana, we no longer have the American Memory Fellows program. We do offer summer teacher institutes. Information about those can be found under professional development on the Teachers Page.

      I’m glad you enjoyed your experience at the Library.

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