Friday, March 17, 2017

Donald C. Dickinson: A Tribute

Don Dickinson 1927-2016
Next to my desk is a small group of reference books that I utilize often.  Don Dickinson’s Dictionary of American Book Collectors (1986) and Dictionary of American Antiquarian Bookdealers (1998) are there: thumbed, note-scribbled, and worn from use.  I’ve spent the last twenty-seven years with Don Dickinson by my side although we never met in person.  We did exchange emails and books over a couple decades and I told myself I would visit him one day at his home in Tucson, Arizona.  I imagined us diving deep into biblio-lore talk, drinks in hand, surrounded by his stacks of books and pamphlets and papers that overflowed his study.  Or, at least that is what I envisioned.  Perhaps he kept everything neat as a pin, but alas, it must remain an imaginary happening.  My email to Don this last fall went unanswered.  I suspected, but was hesitant to type his name into an online search.  When I did, the finality of the moment was difficult.  Don had died October 10, 2016, age 89.
            The brief obituary in the Arizona Daily Star described a life centered around libraries and books.  Don received his PhD in Library Science at the University of Michigan and worked as an academic librarian in Illinois, Michigan, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, and Arizona.  In 1969, he was invited to establish a library science program at the University of Arizona and became its first director.  The obituary notes his membership in the Grolier Club and Zamorano Club.  A passing sentence refers to his works about Langston Hughes, Henry Huntington, and John Carter.  No mention is made of his Dictionaries.  The rest of the obituary portrays a progressive, fun-loving man whose hobbies included hitchhiking, playing drums, Studebakers, jazz, table tennis, basketball watching, train travel, and of course, book collecting.
            Dickinson’s work in the history of book collecting and the book trade deserves further elucidation.  For the scholar, collector, or dealer, Dickinson’s books are always a good place to start and sometimes the only place to go. 
His first major work was A Bio-Bibliography of Langston Hughes 1902-1967 (1967, revised 1972).  In 1975, he produced for the Typophiles of New York, Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt: A Bibliography. 
            However, it was with Dictionary of American Book Collectors that he broke new ground, or at least went much further than anyone else ever had in the field.  The word “dictionary” in the title is misleading, conjuring an image of a brief definition, distilled to sentence or two.  Dickinson’s Dictionary is in fact a collection of short but meaty essays on “359 significant American book collectors who died before December 31, 1984.”  He explains in the preface, “The information provided in the narrative discussions is intended to identify the collector’s chief areas of interest, to describe how those interests developed, and where possible, to indicate the influence the collector and collection may have had.  This approach should be useful to librarians, collectors, curators, and individuals in the book trade who wish to identify prominent American collectors.”
            Dickinson’s criterion for selection is described in the preface.  He sums up the process, “Generally, the men and women represented in this survey formed libraries distinguished by the quality, unity, and superior physical condition of the materials they collected as well as the importance those materials had to other collectors and/or to institutional libraries.”
            What is elusive is the spark that ignited such an undertaking. I should have asked Don about this but never did.  The amount of research involved, particularly in the pre-Internet age, was tremendous and painstaking.  Much of the source information was difficult to access (and remains so).  Dickinson writes, “The only previous work on this subject, Carl Cannon’s American Book Collectors and Collecting, published in 1941, is still valuable but difficult to use for reference purposes. . . More recent information can only be found by searching through a maze of journals, memoirs, reports, and auction records.  This book brings that information together for easy consultation.”
            Dickinson did not hesitate to draw upon the collective brain power of many extraordinary book people to enhance the value of the work.  The preface cites a litany of “librarians, curators, and bookdealers [who] have contributed unselfishly to the preparation of this text.”  I’ll name only a few to give the flavor:  W. H. Bond, Herbert Cahoon, Glen Dawson, Herman Liebert, Marcus McCorison, Lawrence Clark Powell, Ellen Shaffer, Madeleine Stern, Edwin Wolf, and Jake Zeitlin.  Dickinson ends the preface, perhaps with relief, “The preparation of this volume has been both a pleasure and a challenge.”
            I’m glad Don took on the challenge.  I was twenty-three years old in September 1990 when I discovered a copy of his Dictionary at the old Half-Price books location on Guadalupe Street in Austin, Texas.  My interest in the history of book collecting had just begun, and this fortuitous find provided a framework to build my biblio-library.  I still get excited to check off another name in the Dictionary when I acquire an item related to that book collector.  There have been many check marks over the years.
            Don rose to the challenge again after some time off, producing the Dictionary of American Antiquarian Bookdealers (1998), another unique work in the field.  The format follows a similar one to that of the Book Collectors.  He writes in the preface, “This book has been undertaken in order to throw light on the accomplishments of a select group of 205 notable American antiquarian bookdealers who died before 1 August, 1997.”  He details the selection process and explains, “Generally, the individuals included in this book developed a quality stock, issued accurate, attractive sales catalogs, made an impact on private and /or institutional collections, enjoyed a certain amount of longevity in the trade and were active in professional organizations.  Obviously, not all of the bookdealers included possessed all of these qualities.  The diversity of individual styles and practices among antiquarian booksellers is a known and cherished phenomenon.”  Indeed.
            The research on Bookdealers was even more arduous than Book Collectors.  He records that he is “grateful” to the editor of Greenwood Publishing Group, “who extended the deadline on the book on several occasions.”  Dickinson explains, “Few [bookdealers] left any permanent record of their life’s work.  This dictionary has been compiled as an attempt to fill that gap.”  As before, he draws upon the invaluable assistance of many prominent bookdealers, bibliographers and librarians. 
            Although published twelve years apart, Dickinson’s two dictionaries are both bound in matching sturdy red publisher’s cloth, the front cover and spine with black labels and silver gilt stamping.  This was a thoughtful gesture on the part of the publisher Greenwood Press.  My copies sit next to each other on the reference shelf, reflecting the symbiotic relationship between collector and dealer.

            Dickinson wrote an important book, Henry E. Huntington’s Library of Libraries (1995), between the publications of the two dictionaries.  There have been biographies of railroad magnate Huntington but none had focused intensively on his book collecting.  Dickinson explores the crucial period between 1911 and Huntington’s death in 1927 when Huntington dominated the book markets of New York and London.  In his typically thorough manner, Dickinson draws upon the Huntington archives, other manuscript material, printed sources, and even the interviewing of two of Huntington’s granddaughters to flesh out the narrative.  It is crisply written, engaging, and replete with details about prices paid and behind the scenes jousting among the bibliophiles.  Huntington was the biggest book collector of them all in a Golden Age of important American book hunters.  Because of this, the book naturally casts a wide net to tell his story, including just about every prominent collector, bookseller, and bookman of the period.  It is an essential read for anyone with a serious interest in the history of American book collecting.  The only caveat is just that—a casual reader may want to start with a more general biography.  The Huntington Library published the book both in hardback and paperback.  The book itself is well designed and heavily illustrated. 
On a related note, Dickinson also wrote the biographical introduction and edited George Watson Cole: 1850-1939 (1990), No. 8 in the Great Bibliographers Series issued by the Scarecrow Press.  Cole was Huntington’s chief librarian and played a crucial role in developing the collection.
Don Dickinson’s last major work was a biography, John Carter: The Taste and Technique of a Bookman (New Castle: Oak Knoll Press, 2004).  Carter (1905-1975), a well-respected Anglo-American bookman, writer, dealer, and bibliographer, garnered fame early in his career with the publication of his and Graham Pollard’s expose of Thomas J. Wise, An Enquiry in the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets (1934).  He also authored the classic ABC for Book-Collectors (1952).  Carter’s writing acumen and insightful commentary are displayed throughout his published works with Tastes and Technique in Book-Collecting (1948) and Books and Book-Collectors (1956) being other examples.   This elegant, witty Englishman was firmly embedded in the rare book world of England and America for most of his life.
Dickinson uses material from many institutional collections as well as personal interviews of Carter’s colleagues / family to structure the narrative.  There is also a checklist of Carter’s publications.  Don’s style is as usual concise and orderly, making for easy, enjoyable reading.  Full immersion in the biography exposes the close-knit and sometimes combative interplay between the collectors, dealers, and librarians who pushed to advance a more scholarly approach to collecting and bibliography from the 1930s to the 1960s.   
Don had other projects in mind that unfortunately did not come to fruition. He emailed me soon after the Carter book that he had a contract with Oak Knoll to write a biography of English bookman and librarian, A. N. L. Munby.  He also was planning an updated revision of his Dictionary of American Book Collectors with Joel Silver, current director of the Lilly Library.
Don explained to me in an email dated January 29, 2010, “Don't know if I told you I had a contract with O[ak] K[noll] for a revision up date of the Dictionary of American Antiquarian Book Collectors. Joel Silver was going to be the co-author.  I simply could not get it off the ground here - maybe lack of energy ???? anyway I cancelled the OK contract and Joel may go ahead and do it himself.  I regretted giving it up and still think it would be worth doing - deceased collectors from 1985 to 2009 or so.  And just a few months ago I was tested and found to have macular degeneration, and am having treatment.  SO, just as well to put the DAAB behind me.”
The disconcerting news of Don’s failing eyesight prompted me to print out and send Don a draft of my biblio-collection catalogue filled with hundreds of association items related to American book collecting.  He emailed me soon after, “WOW!!! You have done a mighty job.  Congratulations. Absolutely delightful. The Zimmerman Collection of Books About Books is a smashing showpiece.   And I intend to give it several showings to Biblio Friends here in Tucson.  Thanks for the warm inscription. It is, as they say, ‘up my alley.’  I thought the Preface struck just the right tone, a ‘work in progress’. . . I know as I look in more depth, I will have notes/comments etc. to send on but for now WOW!!!”
To receive two “wows” from a mentor is more than I could have hoped for.  Had I not sent him a copy of the catalogue it would have been an eternal regret.  A labor of love has its own reward but positive feedback now and again keeps the fire tended.
Book collecting has rewarded me with many of my closest friends and best moments.  Don Dickinson, through his writings and personal encouragement, greatly enhanced my book collecting and thus my life.  So, this tribute to Don is not only a pleasure to write but a necessity.


  1. Years ago I had lots of professional conferences in Phoenix, and a few in Tucson, so we visited Don in Tucson around 25(?) years ago. He visited us about 20(?) years ago, and we did a long walk on NY's east side, with a stop at the Morgan Library and one at a salad bar/buffet restaurant for lunch. We had lots of fun talking, and emailing over a long period of time, but we weren't in contact for at least 5 years.

    I thought I remembered a thank you in the preface to Dictionary of American Bookdealers, so I looked this morning. There's a list of 18 names of people who gave Don some help in preparing the book; I'm listed with 8 others whom I know/knew/met, a bunch of whom I'm very flattered to be on a list with: George Allen, Martin Antonetti, Gabe Austin, Glen Dawson, Bob Fleck, Marvin Mondlin, Leona Rostenberg, and Madeleine Stern. (I wrote an article about Charles Sessler, and gave Don some information about him.)

    I remember vividly how happy Don was that we pronounced his wife's name, Colleen, "correctly," which, apparently, Tucson-ites don't. (Sadly, Colleen died years before Don.)

    Oh, and Donald visited us on one of our stays in LA, and we visited a bunch of bookstores -- anyone remember what those were? -- and the Huntington Library.

  2. PS Is anyone but the two of us still interested in the history of book collecting and rare/antiquarian bookselling?

  3. Yes, I'm quite interested. I read Prof. Dickinson's books on Carter and on the Huntington. I use his reference works as well. RIP.

    Although I've been collecting for two decades, this past year has been a banner one for finding copies of books associated with a number of prominent collectors: W.S. Lewis, Alfred Sutro, Russell Train, Lessing Rosenwald, Ladislaus von Hoffmann, F.A. Pottle, James Boyd, and Alba Boardman Johnson. I'm working on an essay on my "Year of Living Associatively" (just a working title).

    1. We should get in touch. My email is

  4. I worked fairly closely with him on the Carter book during my days at the Ransom Center. Always very courteous to the staff and eager to learn from them. I suspect he came to dislike JC as a person although I may just be projecting my own feelings on him.Anyway, it will stand as the definitive bio.  He was one of those frail looking people turned out to have endless energy and enthusiasm. I am not surprised he was going to take on another project in his late 80s.  I’df like to follow his model for (non-) retirement.
    Rich Oram

    1. Talking about endless energy: Don visited New York quite some time ago; we went to the Morgan, and then walked around Manhattan for hours on end; he was at least 15 years older than me, but wasn't yet tired when I got completely exhausted.

  5. On the Exlibris-L mailing list a few years ago, I referred to Don Dickinson's book, Dictionary of American Book Collectors to provide information about a collector someone was asking about. Don Dickinson emailed and thanked me for citing his book. To think he did all that research on book collectors before the internet was even around is amazing.

  6. Add me to the small coterie of people interested in the history of antiquarian book collecting/selling, with a particular focus on Americana. The Clements Library will have a book out this fall on the notable pre-1900 generations of Americanists--White Kennett, Isaiah Thomas, Peter Force, Joseph Sabin, George Brinley, etc. Will be a useful contribution to the field, we hope.

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  8. Greetings Kurt, I just wanted to thank you for your insightful tribute to Donald C . Dickinson, what an impressive life. I was so glad to read about Mr Dickinson's numerous publications, in fact I can't wait to purchase copies of his work. Really wonderful stuff! Regards Robert James Miller. Mudgegonga Vic Australia.

  9. Don was an occasional customer for a few decades, always ordering highly sophisticated works of scholarship, the stuff most people don't read! I'm glad to have known him. His book on Huntington's library is wonderful, and beautifully printed and bound to boot.

  10. Comment from D.W. Krummel: I’ve knew Don back in the 1960s, and have used his two directories, often and admiringly. It’s therefore odd that I can only remember one good, long meeting, in Tucson in 1990, at an extended luncheon with his good friend Larry Powell. I remember him as kind and thoughtful, and his scholarship will stand the test of time.