March 14, 2003

War Book Celebrated

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In a ceremony held in Libe Cafe on March 5, Cornell University Library celebrated the acquisition of its seven-millionth volume, Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War , donated by University Trustee Thomas A. Mann ’64 and Diann Goodman Mann ’66.

Gardner’s Sketchbook contains a hundred photographs of the Civil War, and was first published in two volumes in 1865 and 1866.

According to Prof. Shirley Samuels, English, the book differs from other early war photography in that it not only portrays the scarred landscape of battle, but also captures aspects of the soldiers’ lives, from holding cockfights to decorating their lodgings. It was the first time that the public had quick access to wartime photographers’ work.

“Within two days [after being taken] the photos would be available to someone in New York City,” Samuels said.

University Librarian Sarah Thomas said the library chose the book partly because it coincides well with “academic studies which are increasingly incorporating more forms of media.”

“The ceremony also calls attention to the library, marks a milestone, [and] highlights a superlative collection related to the Civil War,” Thomas said.

Mann also spoke at the ceremony.

“For this document of the terrible and turmoiled times of our country to [join] other important documents such as the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Andrew Dickson White collection of anti-slavery pamphlets is appropriate and an honor,” Mann explained.

Only 200 copies were produced, as no reliable method for mass producing photographs had been invented. The set of two volumes sold for the then-exorbitant sum of $150.

One famous pair of photographs from the book consists of the same five dead soldiers taken from two different angles. One image focuses on one man with his mouth open as if still alive, the other shows all the soldiers lying in peaceful final repose. Samuels argued that the book was Alexander Gardner’s “attempt to both evoke and solve the horrors of war by showing its devastation.”

Cornell’s libraries passed the six-millon-volume mark in 1997, and currently add about 125,000 volumes every year. The library is among the 10 largest academic libraries in the United States.

Thomas emphasized that the library’s success is measured in “more than just numbers,” and that in the coming years “one goal is to continue to help students get to relevant information quickly.” Recent library innovations include the renovation of the Kinkeldey Room in Uris Library, and giving students online access to nearly all extant ancient Greek texts.

Gardner’s Sketchbook has been digitized and can be seen on the library’s website. The book will be part of an exhibition on the history of abolitionism running from June to September in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections in Kroch Library.

Archived article by Dan Galindo