"My Books and I"

A Friends of the Library Talk

by President Katharine McBride, 5 March 1975

Half-way Bank, Assinniboine River. From Narrative of the Canadian Red River, gift of Katharine McBride.

I never planned to speak about the books I have. I have never spoken about them before, and I will never speak about them again. So, this is it.

I first became interested in British imperialism during my senior year at Bryn Mawr, when I took one of those courses that might now be called a "luxury course" - a course not necessary to fulfill any major requirement. This particular course was taught by the History Department's William Roy Smith. The time was 1925, when efforts to unravel the Empire, at least as far as India was concerned, were becoming stronger. Billie Smith's course was "British Imperialism," but the title of his book, published in 1938, was Nationalism and Reform in India.

I don't remember collecting books at first. I was working in and around Philadelphia, doing research on patients with brain injuries. Since I was following patients in that part of town which was punctuated with bookshops, I took time to look in on them occasionally. I didn't mean to be a collector. I just meant to follow up an interest. I did find that I got more and more interested in books on India, Africa, and China - not on the whole of the British Empire.

The bookshops ranged from old Leary's, where for six dollars you could buy a history of India that would have cost three times as much elsewhere, to William H. Allen's, which continues to be one of the most interesting shops. In Boston there is Goodspeed's; and then there are those specialists who call themselves antiquarians, like Paragon, run by a former newspaper man from Vienna, and The East and West Shop, which takes more care than any other.

One bookshop persuaded The New York Times to do an article on its customers. When the article was published, it began with David Ben-Gurion and ended with me. The published account attributed to me an average invoice ten times that which, in fact, I usually spent.

A monthly meeting in New York often gave me a half hour at Orientalia. Working left little free time, but I spent many half hours in bookshops. Bookshops did eighty to ninety percent of their work with libraries then, so they were not accustomed to visitors. But for me, part of the fun was just seeing books.

What of the books themselves? To the casual visitor who saw them on my shelves, they might have seemed like a travel collection. Many of the most colorful were travel books, especially of the late 18th or early 19th centuries, before photography did away with engraving and the beautiful color plates. Then there was the pamphlet literature, fifteen to a hundred page pamphlets or tracts, so important to understanding the times but so hard on the Library to catalog.

If I were to choose an example in India for possible concentration, it would be Bengal. The long period of imperialist and anti-imperialist tendencies going back and forth is fascinating. I never have known if I became interested in government because I was working in administration, but I did become fascinated with the intricacy of governmental systems, as they developed over time.

Of India's governors or governors-general, most interesting to me is Warren Hastings, particularly his experimental approach to government, which ended with his impeachment. Especially impressive is his responsibility for some of the early research on India. The books and pamphlets I have were all bought before the United States became particularly fascinated with impeachment. It's also of interest for us to note that the British spent half as much on the impeachment of Warren Hastings as they did on the war with the American Colonies. I think I have given the Library all my Warren Hastings materials, but I wouldn't be surprised if I didn't have to go out and buy some more, because I really miss him.

Oddities I acquired included de Lesseps and the Suez Canal, some twenty-six initial volumes which I happened to see at the Fletcher's shop in London, when I was buying a copy of Sir Walter Raleigh's History of the World for the College. My interest in the Suez was because my Father was one of the engineers who worked on the Panama Canal. The Library now has this small collection.

I do still have some Fort William material, along with a manuscript letterbook from Fort St. George in Madras. And I've kept as well other various scattered books and journals, on the theory that I'll read them. We'll see.

(Friends' chairman Doreen Spitzer thanked Miss McBride and concluded by saying, "I didn't know a thing about Warren Hastings until today." Miss McBride responded, "Oh, don't miss him!")

Edited and abbreviated by James Tanis
(15 March 1997)

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