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The Farm House Museum Library & Book Collection

Posted on April 30, 2018 at 3:26 PM by Nancy Gebhart

By Jonny Schmidt 
Graduating Senior in Anthropology; Farm House Museum Assistant, 2016-2018


Ray Bradbury once said, “Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.” Libraries are an important source of knowledge and can teach us a lot about our past. While centrally Iowa State University has Parks Library, the Farm House Museum has a small library as well and not just any library, it is the oldest library room at Iowa State University. This room, located to the right of the front door, is actually designed to look like Charles Curtiss’s library in 1907. This is because the museum has a picture of the Curtiss library from 1907, one of the only known early interior photos of the Farm House, which the museum was able to use to recreate the room to look like it did in 1907. The library room itself has over 350 different books. These include novels, non-fictions, yearbooks, business guides, photo books, biographies, traveller guides, bibles, journals, encyclopedias, children’s books, medical guides, and even English grammar books. This diversity of knowledge can teach us a lot about Iowa State, Iowa and world history.

Most of the books were published between 1850 and 1930, but the library has books dating back to 1772. Many of these books are part of multi-volume collections that can range from four to fifteen volumes. For example, the library has five different encyclopedia collections. For many of the books in the permanent collection, there are often multiple books by the same author. For instance there are three Victor Hugo novels, four John Ruskin’s, four Bibles, eight Robert Lewis Stevenson’s, ten Sir Walter Scott’s, fourteen Oliver Wendel Holmes’, and 31 Charles Dickens novels. Besides these authors, the library also has a number of Iowa State Bombs, the official yearbook of Iowa State College, from 1896, 1904 and 1909. The Bombs show a lot of old pictures of campus and go into detail about student life. Now, the Iowa State University Special Collections has digitized their collection of Bombs that can be viewed online.

My most recent project as a Farm House Museum assistant included cataloging, inventorying and photographing the books and publications that are part of the Farm House’s permanent collection. These books, unlike the ISU Library collection, never get checked out and rarely come off their shelves. They are part of the University Museums’ permanent collection. These books are mainly donations from individuals that occurred during the 1970s and 80s when the Farm House Museum was building upon its permanent collection. My work on these books can be viewed in the University Museums’ online collection database. There are many interesting books in the library collection and while I can’t talk about every single one, I’ve picked a few to share with you that are actually very interesting to me.

One exciting pamphlet we have is about Iowa State that was a recruitment book for the school from 1902. The pamphlet shows off the beautiful campus, talks about degrees that can be pursued like home economics and civil engineering, and mentions student life from those times. What is fascinating about the book is it is filled with photos of Iowa State from 1902 that show what the campus looked like then – stark compared to today’s campus with 36,000+ students!

The collection also contains the transcribed College Farm House Journal that was written from 1866-1882 to keep track of purchases and work done at the Farm House. This book is a good primary resource for anyone who wants to do research about the Farm House in its early years and see what challenges it went through.

Two Chicago picture books are visually intriguing. One is called 125 Photographs of Chicago Buildings from 1910 and the other is called Glimpses of the World’s Fair from 1893. My favorite, the World’s Fair picture book, shows off everything from that exhibition from the art palace, horticultural building, machinery hall, to the different state and country buildings and the riverfront.

One book we have is called Ancient Literature-Oriental & Classical. This book traces ancient languages from the classical era and discusses the literature and poetry that came from them. Published in 1880, this book talks about the main language families like Aryan, Semitic and Turanian, and then goes into detail about the different writing styles from around the world. Some notable mentions are the Vedas from India, Confucius’ writings, ancient Hebrew, Hieroglyphics and the writing of Homer.

Another compelling book is called the Great Streets of the World published in 1892 and written by multiple authors. This book details the history and daily life on six famous streets during that time. The streets are Broadway in New York City, Piccadilly in London, the Boulevards of Paris, the Corso of Rome, the Grand Canal in Venice, Unter Den Linden in Berlin and the Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg. The book is highly illustrated with every two pages getting an illustrated picture of the street or activities taking place on the street.

Scotland, Picturesque and Traditional, is a very fascinating book written in 1895 by George Eyre-Todd. The author traveled across Scotland in 1894 and wrote about each place he went to. He describes each place he saw, the geography, the people and the history of it. He goes to every famous city and location in Scotland including Edinburgh, Inverness, the Highlands, Aberdeen, and the Isle of Skye. He also drew many beautiful illustrations of what he saw in each location. This book has special meaning to me as I took part in a study-abroad in Scotland during my time at ISU. Remarkably, some of the illustrations contained architecture and landmarks that I recognized from my travels!

One book from 1907 is part of a six-volume collection called The Home Medical Library. This volume deals with the eyes, nose and lungs. The volume talks about pink eye, sore mouth, asthma, gonorrhea, and sexual hygiene. Interestingly the author chastises parents who give bad sexual hygiene advice to their children. The author also tries to explain insanity and why it is different then mental illness.

Safe Methods of Business published in 1916 talks about all the rules in business and how to succeed. This book is basically a text book because the author gives advice on a wide range of topics like banking, spelling properly, laws and legal forms, bookkeeping and gambling. The book is so extensive it details good penmanship, the deaf alphabet, how to write an application, how to write bank notes, bails and bonds, how best to mail a letter, how to spot counterfeit money, and wage tables from each state. The author also states that women should be involved in business more. This would have been a very useful book for any person wanting to start a business just after WWI. 

While most books in the library are from the 1800’s and the early 1900’s, we do have two books in the collection that are older than 1800. The first is a large Bible published in 1793 in Edinburgh and based off the King James Bible. The oldest book in our collection is a large French book published in 1772. The book is called Recueil de planches, sur les sciences, les arts libéraux, et les arts méchaniques: avec leur explication [Compendium of plates, on the sciences, the liberal arts, and the mechanical arts: with their explanation]. This book shows off different illustrations of factory machines, unfortunately some of the pages are missing (possibly used as teaching tools or frame worthy prints). Today though the book is in pretty good condition for being 240 years old.       

Other notable books in the collection include an eight-volume Standard Musical Encyclopedia collection. These books together detail the history of music, great composers, theories of music and sheet music of various famous songs. There is also a small green book from 1864 called the Comprehensive Letter Writer for Ladies and Gentlemen. The whole book is just examples of letters people have written to others that are meant serve as examples for readers. Finally one more book I want to mention is a large black book called a Report of the Commissioner of Patents for the Year 1857. The House of Representatives issued this book and it is meant to be a report on the current state of the U.S. agricultural industry of that year. It lists the statistics, seeds, animal breeding, rural economy and agricultural experimentation of the year 1857. 

While I have only listed just a few of the hundreds of books in the Farm House library, there is always more to explore. These books show the knowledge that is passed down through the decades and what we can learn from it. Many of these books use photos of places that may no longer exist, or use high quality engraved illustrations that aren’t used in books produced today. Even studying the binding, embossing and fonts on the book covers is fascinating.

If you would like more information on the library, there is now a full list of every book in the Farm House library and where it is located.  Stop by the Farm House Museum to talk with the staff and review the listing of books in the collection!

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