For Morgan Ray, the recent arrival at Flathead Valley Community College of 15 boxes filled with nearly 280 books felt almost like Christmas.
Ray is the library services director at FVCC, and is among a handful of library employees combing through a donation of what the college is calling “rare books and original documents” focused largely on the history of the Rocky Mountain region from the perspectives of explorers and trappers.
“It felt like I was a child getting to open and look at all of these books,” Ray said of the the day-and-a-half effort to unbox and list all of the books.
The books are written in at least four different languages, and some are limited or first editions. For some books the titles have faded, or feature multiple, sometimes elaborate titles and subtitles. The process of verifying some of the books is ongoing. The oldest of the bunch could be one leatherbound French geography book inscribed with the handwritten date of 1657.
An appraiser will be coming to the college next year, but for now library employees are cataloging and annotating the books, which will be available for public and academic use in closed stacks, where part of the criteria for access will be, as Ray paraphrased, making sure “their hands are clean and don’t have Cheeto dust, and their Starbucks cup isn’t sitting next to that super old book.”
The books were donated to the college by Nick Chickering, a longtime ranch broker who is preparing to leave Montana so that he and his wife can be closer to family. Much of the collection is comprised of books collected by his grandfather Allen Chickering, a California attorney, botanist and longtime member, and at one point president, of the California Historical Society who died in the 1950s.
“I’ve known only two people in my life who had a photographic memory. One was Allen L. Chickering and the other was Steve Jobs,” Chickering said, referring to the late business magnate who founded Apple.
He has been a steward for the collection for years, and is still in possession of more books from his grandfather, many of them about California history, which he decided not to include in the donation because he doesn’t think there will be much local interest in the topic.
“I’m going to keep it and I’ll build enough bookshelves to put it up,” he said.
Chickering was 12 when his grandfather died, and he was told that upon his death his grandfather had the largest private collection of Western history in the United States.
“If you’d seen the total collection…he had a room in his home in Piedmont which was 360 degrees, all the way to the ceiling. You had to use ladders to get up to the books.”
Among the collection are a number of mid 19th-century bound collections of editions of Harper’s magazine. The table of contents in one such volume include articles titled “How We Spend Our Money,” “Bear and Basket Maker,” “Application of Photography to Printing” and “Lion Hunter in New York.”
Another book in the collection, A.S. Mercer’s “The Banditti of the Plains: Or the Cattleman’s Invasion of 1892- ‘the crowning infamy of the ages,’” begins with a forward by James Mitchell Clark proclaiming “I was somewhat startled to read that my father was a red-handed murderer.”
Marty Mullins, an adjunct professor of history at FVCC called the donation “an embarrassment of riches.”
She believes the “specialization and magnitude,” of the gift will attract specialists, scholars, and graduate students who might not be able to find this amount of rare titles in a single collection elsewhere in the northwest.
Mullins is particularly excited about the number of primary sources in the donation, like Marquis de Chastellux’s 1787 “Travels in North America in the Years 1780, 1781 and 1782.”
In explaining the academic value, Ray pointed to the opportunity some of these texts can offer in dispelling romanticized understandings of Western history and providing a more full understanding of the past.
“We’ve got three or four different new books about Kit Carson, and Kit Carson was an American frontiersman and is known for his Western exploration,” she said. “But he also is known for his horrible treatment of our Native American communities.”
Chickering said that his grandfather read every book in the collection, but that he himself has only read a fraction of them, and that the content of some books is “brutal,” to the point where he would have to stop reading.
The Flathead Valley Community College Foundation hosted a small celebration last week with refreshments and hors d’oeuvres in the heated and well-lit Broussard Family Library and Learning Commons, which seemed to underscore the distance between the past of the books and the present of their new home.
“What strikes you the most about reading them, is these are first person,” Chickering said. “This is not some historian sitting down and writing a thesis. This is about what actually happened in front of their eyes and it’s tough. It’s tough stuff to read.”
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