Lower Merion's Lost Books

By David Schmidt
Main Line Life
originally published December 11, 2002

When Lower Merion High School replaced the half-century old circulation desk in the school’s library, it got more than just a new desk. In a hard-tospot compartment for which there was no key, librarian Pam McGlone found 104 old books, some dating from the mid-19th century.

It wasn’t that no one knew they were there, but for most it made a nice little mystery. And without the curiosity and memory of one staff member, it wouldn’t have been a story with a happy ending because the books would have been destroyed.

It was a mystery that is at least 30 years old, because that’s when Jim Rigby last saw the books. He’s the districtwide audio-visual technologist and has been working for the school for those three decades.

But the mystery was a lost mystery until recently when Lower Merion High School took advantage of a “recycled” circulation desk that met the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act by lowering its height enough to be accessible at wheelchair level.

McGlone remembered that when she arrived at the school, Rigby had told her that there was a compartment with old books in it. “She tried all the keys we could find, but none of them worked,” Rigby said. “So whatever the books were, they just stayed there.”

Rigby knew of the books because he’d seen the compartment open and the old books there in 1973. “I was walking by when the librarian then, Richard Whitfield, was in the cabinet. Being the curious sort, I asked what they were,” he said. “He told me they were some old books that they were keeping there for safety.”

Rigby speculates that the reason they were there was because they were laying new carpet in the library – which is still there. During that process, there was a lot of furniture being moved around. “The compartment probably got covered up and forgotten about,” Rigby said. Except, of course, by Rigby.

Although no one in the school district remembers for sure, the circulation desk was probably there when the building was finished in the 1950s.

“I remember it from when I was in school, and I graduated in 1957,” said Ted Goldsborough, past president of the school’s alumni association. “It was blond-finished maple wood, very ’50s looking.”

It stood about waist high and was L-shaped, with the corner curving into the shorter end. “The compartment was on the corner of the circulation desk and was hard to see,” Rigby said. According to Rigby, even if you were looking for it was difficult to spot. “It looked just like any other panel in the desk, it was a flush panel with only a little cylinder lock showing where it was,” he said. “But it wasn’t really a secret panel or anything like that.”

But the real reason the books remained unrecovered was more mundane. They were “probably lost for all these years because one of the librarian assistant’s desks was pushed up next to the circulation desk, and since it was similar in appearance, it was thought to be part of the desk,” Rigby said.

Luckily, librarian McGlone remembered what Rigby had told her almost a decade before. Now that it was being removed, there was no reason to protect it. So she asked the men from the operations department if they could pry it open.

It didn’t take them long to get the door open, and there was the treasure, so to speak. There were 104 books, most dating from the turn of the century or earlier. It’s an eclectic collection with many of the books being common in well-read households of the period. There are a number of popular books and compendiums of letters of wellknown figures of the time.

For the school district, they were of little use. Many were in bad condition, and few, if any, of them would ever be a use to a high school student. So it donated them to the Lower Merion Historical Society.

The society already has collections of books, so it was a logical move. However, those collections are strictly defined. For example, they have the collection of books that was actually housed in the Lower Merion Academy for use by students during the 19th century. But there is one other collection that seemed to fit the bill for at least some of the books, and those would end up getting a home.

“The historical society has a charter to secure the history of Lower Merion. For that reason, many of the books aren’t of interest to them. But thanks to one collection, 40 of the books will be retained and cared for, and in some cases restored. The Edward H. Snow Collection was donated by him to the society. Actually he was one of the founders,” said Goldsborough, “in addition to being the longtime principal of Lower Merion Junior High School.”

The Snow Collection is kept in the Lower Merion Academy by the historical society, and the books that were found that are textbooks or deal with education will be added to the collection.

“He had begun collecting education- related books, including old primers, and this was the collection he gave to us,” he said. “Since the charter of this collection is education, we’ve gone through these books and found about 40 that are early textbooks or primers.”

While no one knows where the books came from, there is a common factor in many of the books, especially the primers. “In the front of the book there’s a card that lists the name Dorothy Holland and gives the dates July 3, 1877, to May 27, 1941,” Goldsborough said. “We haven’t been able to find anything out about her yet, but the dates certainly sound like a birth and death date, although that’s just supposition on our part.”

Perhaps she was the person who gave the books or was even the one who used them while studying as a child in the 1880s and 1890s and collected the rest during her life. Richard Whitfield, who was the librarian who told Rigby about the books and the compartment, is now retired. The society would like to talk with him about the books, but so far has been unable to locate him.

So like much of what’s happened in the past, a little bit of a little mystery remains. Apart of people’s lives come through the years, but there are missing pieces and reasons. Much of the past is that way because by the time it’s become history, a lot of the details are lost.

As for the circulation desk, according to assistant principal Phil Salim, when they weren’t able to find a use for it, it was recycled. Luckily without the mystery books.

About the books:

Godeys Lady’s Book, Vol. 66, 1863. A bound monthly magazine, with each book being six months. The magazine included such things as handpainted illustrations of ladies fashion, romantic stories, sewing patterns, letters and illustrations of hair styles. Louis Godey published these in Philadelphia.

Intellectual Arithmetic upon the Inductive Method of Instruction, Colburn’s Primer, 1849. This was a primer which was probably for more advanced students on their way to university.

A set of readers, in three volumes, with each being a story or tale, The Abbey, by Regina Maria Roche was published in 1827 in Philadelphia by J.J. Woodward.

The Arithmetical Primer of Underhill’s New Table Book, published by L.SD. Lerned of Cambridge, Mass, Written by D.C. Underhill, 1846.

Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, published by David McCay in 1888.

The Rubiayat of Omar Khayyam, a limited edition of plates, number 723 of 1,000 published in 1900 by Elbert Hunard.

Six volumes of William Shakespeare’s works, two Henry V, Richard II, Henry II, Richard III. Also a copy of Gulliver’s Travels.

The Vision of Hell, Purgatory and Paradiseby Dante Aligehieri, J.P Lippencott Co Philadelphia, translated by The Rev. Henry Francis Cary, A.M. 1844.

Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book designed as a supplement to the Her Treatise on Domestic Economy, Harper and Brothers, New York, 1870. Includes directions for splitting a hog.