Sign here, please…

>Historic autograph collectors have caused many a sleepless night to librarians and archivists. To collect autographs is no sin, surely. But when a collector cuts out a signature from the document upon which is was written, vandalism has occurred–not just physical, but historical vandalism, depriving the signature of its context, the document of its integrity, and our heritage of one more coherent piece of evidence.

Washington Irving called autograph collectors the “mosquitoes of literature,” and some of my colleagues have called them much worse. A fairly sympathetic exhibition on the subject was done at the Rare Book School (University of Virginia) a few years ago:

Today as I was walking through the stacks I noticed this small volume and picked it up. To my mixed delight and dismay, it was full of excised signatures–many of figures of Rhode Island history. In fact, on the cover it is written, “Autographs: Counsellors at law, governors of the state and officials, U.S. Secretaries of State, navy and army officers, consuls, senators, collected by John Wilson Smith.”

Those with sharp eyes and a knowledge of Rhode Island book lore will note one of the signatures — that of John Russell Bartlett, when he was a cashier of the Globe Bank in 1832. According to his autobiography, “In the spring of 1831 I was chosen cashier of the Globe Bank, a new institution, of which William Sprague, grandfather of the present Governor and Senator William Sprague was the president . . . as soon as I entered on my duties as a Cashier I was married . . . I retained the office of Cashier of the Globe Bank six years, leading a very quiet and domestic life.”

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