For Professor Kuhn’s “Enlightenment and Romanticism” class, the same one which took us earlier this term to a production of Candide (read about that here), had a date with librarian Annette LeClair, Director of Collections and Technical Services, to meet some of Union’s rare books and learn about Union’s history in the Enlightenment.

We gathered in the Phi Beta Kappa room on the second floor of the library to flip through and learn a bit about the history of the books and Union’s libraries.  Union was founded in 1795, back when Schenectady was mostly a wilderness town, to its establishment was admirable.  The school first collected some books to form a central library, but the students also formed literary societies that had their own libraries, which was a big draw for prospective scholars.

Some of Union’s rare book collection contains volumes that were purchased at the time of Union’s founding and replacement editions of ones that were lost.  Such books include Benjamin Franklin’s Observations on Electricity, Thomas Jefferson’s Letters from Virgina, and the first English edition of Montesquieu’s The Persian Letters (which we just finished reading for Professor Kuhn’s class!).

The first English edition of The Persian Letters

The first English edition of _The Persian Letters_, Union’s first purchases rare books collection


The Persian Letters fits in your hand!

_The Persian Letters_ fits in your hand! Many of these books were “pocket sized” so and people would carry them with them

Illustrations in Franklin's  Observations on Electricity

Illustrations in Franklin’s _Observations on Electricity_



Another section of the rare book collection that we got to see were from John Bigelow’s collection.  Bigelow was a Union alumnus who served as Abraham Lincoln’s ambassador to France during the Civil War; he was a book collector in his own right and his descendants donated his collection to Union, including two complete volumes of Voltaire’s works and Diderot’s Encyclopedia.  The version of Candide in the photos below is a version with hilariously lewd illustrations of some of the scenes from the story.

 scene where Candide watches two monkeys running around with two girls

An illustration of the scene where Candide watches two monkeys running around with two girls from the illustrated _Candide_ from the Bigelow collection

illustrated version of Voltaire's  Candide

A ridiculously illustrated version of Voltaire’s _Candide_ from the Bigelow Collection



Below are pictures of Diderot’s Encyclopedia, the first encyclopedia in the Western world, which was made for the common person to learn about anything they wanted.  The book at the time, however, were banned (like most good ones) and so people would hide them in their houses and take them out in secret.  We looked at some of this radical thinking when in class we looked at the table of contents, which listed Religion on the same level as Superstition–racy!  Also pictured below is Humboldt’s Atlas; he was a Romantic who got into exploration of South America.

Illustrations from Humboldt’s _Atlas of Latin America 1799-1804_ from the Bigelow collection

Diderot's Encyclopedia

Diderot’s Encyclopedia, from the Bigelow collection









Union also has a copy of Johnson’ Dictionary, the first in the English language, and a copy of his proposal for writing it.  He had a team of researchers who would look at the way words were used in literature and articulate a meaning around that.

A Dictionary of the English Language

Samuel Johnson’s _A Dictionary of the English Language_, published 1755, part of the Bigelow collection