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Building and Maintaining a Civil War Library
One year ago today I wrote my first post on Substack and what a ride it’s been. To mark this anniversary I am offering a special discount to those of you who would like to upgrade to a paid subscription. In fact, today is the last day you can do so. Just click the red button.
Upgrading will give you access to all of this site’s content and will go far in making it possible for me to continue to bring you the content that you’ve come to expect. Don’t forget about our first book club meeting on Sunday, March 26 at 7pm, when we will dicuss Clint Smith’s book, How the Word is Passed. (Details to follow)
Finally, I am pleased to share that next month I will be interviewing historian Ty Seidule about his work with the Naming Commission and his new book project. This promises to be a fascinating discussion, but you will need to upgrade to see it for yourself.
Thanks again to all of you for reading and for your support. Here’s to another great year.
There is an interesting piece today in The Washington Post about how bibliophiles organize and maintain their large libraries. Much of it resonated with me, especially as I begin to downsize my personal library.
I’ve been reading Civil War history since the mid-1990s, following a chance visit to the Antietam National Battlefield. Before that visit I had never given the Civil War much thought at all. Looking back, however, it is clear that my initial visit and return visits in the months to follow changed the trajectory of my life.
At the time I worked at a very large Borders Books & Music outside of Washington, D.C., which included a very deep American history section. I absolutely loved that job and I read as much as I could get my hands on. My employee discount and other benefits made it very easy to purchase books. And I did.
I still have a few of the earliest titles that I purchased at the time, which introduced me to the subject. They include Stephen Sears’s Landscape Turned Red, Drew Gilpin Faust’s Mothers of Invention, David H. Donald’s Lincoln, and Gary W. Gallagher’s Confederate War. A couple hundred books made the trip with me to Alabama in 1998, where I lived for two years before moving to Charlottesville in 2000.
My library expanded greatly during that decade. My wife and I had the physical space for a large library and I finally had the financial means to purchase what I wanted as well as what I needed for teaching purposes. Writing a popular blog, beginning in 2005, brought in a significant number of free books from publishers hoping for a little free advertising on my website.
By then I was actively researching and writing about the Civil War so the library was very much a working library. In fact, I’ve always viewed my library as such. Periodically I have sold or donated books, mainly out of necessity. Before moving to Boston in 2011, I sold roughly 1,000 books, but still managed to bring another 2,500 with me to the new home.
With relatively few exceptions, the books in my collection have been published since I started reading Civil War history in the mid-1990s. I am not sure what that says about me other than wanting to stay on top of the latest research.
I now have a relatively small and cozy reading room for my Civil War collection, which hovers around 1,500 titles. In 2021 I purchased new cases that were more appropriate for the space I have available. It’s also a great space in which to write and just relax.
During the pandemic I decided to donate books that have outlived their purpose in an effort to keep things manageable. It’s been much less painful than I anticipated. A couple boxes have gone to the history department at Boston University as well as a few graduate students that I’ve met over social media. I’ve also started to spread some of my books around to the many “Little Libraries” that now dot our neighborhood.
The goal is to consolidate as many of my books as possible into one room. I’ve been reading a great deal of civil rights history as well as the history of the modern conservative movement in recent years. They now take up more and more room.
At this point I probably should take more advantage of e-books, but I’ve always enjoyed the physical sensation of holding a book and with all the time I spend online it’s an opportunity to completely unplug from the distractions.
A number of you have asked how I organize my Civil War books. No, I don’t organize my books by color. I cringe at the very thought.
Civil War: General
Civil War literature
The South: Regional-State studies
Confederate: unit histories
United States (Union): general
Union: unit histories
Union: Black regiments/letters/diaries
Military History: General Union and Confederate
Battle & Campaign studies
Civil War Memory
I suspect that I am not alone in trying to maintain such a large collection. Some of you probably have much larger personal libraries. More power to you. How do you do it?
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