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May 2012, Volume 6, Issue 5


From the Director's Desk                                                                  


Dear Members and Friends of the Boston Athenæum:
You serious science fiction fans may know that Towel Day is just around the corner. According to, "Towel Day is an annual celebration on the 25th of May, as a tribute to the late author Douglas Adams (1952-2001). On that day, fans around the universe proudly carry a towel in his honor."

Adams' hilarious epic, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (a BBC Radio 4 serial in 1978, subsequently a series of five books, various stage shows, a BBC TV series, a computer game, a 2005 Hollywood movie, and nine comic book adaptations), is famous for such roadside attractions as The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and a super-super-super computer named "Deep Thought," designed to produce, at long last, "the Answer to The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything." 

Why a towel, you ask? A towel... " Adams writes early on, "is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have... You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta... use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand combat; wrap it around your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can't see it, it can't see you)..."

Here at 10 ½ Beacon, we celebrate May with the reopening of the terraces, signifying the return of warm weather to a city famous for cold and damp. Along those lines, let me remind you that we will continue to be open on Saturdays throughout the summer months.

In closing, let me note once more the passing of our beloved former President, Arthur Vershbow, just a month past his ninetieth birthday. As I describe in greater detail elsewhere in this issue, Arthur's contributions here were both numerous and lasting. We remember him with fondness and gratitude.
 Paula D. Matthews
Stanford Calderwood Director and Librarian

"Winds of the north! restrain your icy gales,
Nor chill the bosom of these happy vales!
Hence in dark heaps, ye gathering clouds resolve!
Disperse, ye lightnings! and, ye mists, dissolve!"

-- Erasmus Darwin, "The Botanic Garden, 'The Economy of Vegetation,' Canto I"
Credit for image above: Arthur & Charlotte Vershbow Special Collections Reading Room, Megan Manton, 2011.
Credit for bookplate: Arthur and Charlotte Vershbow fund, designed by Leo Wyatt (1980).

Berenice Abbott's Boston Photographs


The Boston Athenæum's Prints & Photographs Department houses an unusual collection of Boston photographs taken by the modernist photographer Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) in the summer of 1934. Rarely consulted, these photographs have recently been scanned in order to bring greater attention to the collection. Beginning May 1st and continuing through the summer, a selection of several of the original photographs will be on view in the Henry Long Room on the first floor of the Athenæum. The photographs were acquired by the Boston Athenæum in 1958. At the time, Abbott was in Boston to photograph scientific phenomena for MIT's Physical Science Study Committee. Concurrent with the Athenæum's installation of Abbott's work, an exhibition of her science photographs will be on view at MIT Museum's new Kurtz Gallery for Photography.
Catharina Slautterback
Curator of Prints & Photographs
Credit: Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), West Broadway at Dorchester Avenue, South Boston, Mass., 1934, printed 1958. Silver gelatin print. Boston Athenæum.


Tales from the Cataloging Trenches


Deficits, fare hikes, service cuts, and allegations of classism are hardly new charges against the MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority). In 1949, the transportation system's forerunner, the MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority), faced similar indictments, as documented by the publication, pictured here, written by Daniel B. Schirmer, who, according to the colophon, was the secretary of the Communist Party of Boston. The pamphlet The Truth about the MTA avers that the MTA is perennially strapped for cash because "John Q. Straphanger" shoulders the burden of fare hikes and suffers inadequate services, while the governor's friends in "State Street -- the heart of monopoly capitalism in Massachusetts" get rich on the interest of the bonds issued to finance the subway. Schirmer goes on to advocate for a united labor front, where Communist and non-Communist fight together against the fare increases and insist that corporations are taxed to make up the deficits.
As a side note, the well-known folk song "M.T.A.," documenting Charlie's ill-fated subway ride, dates from the same year as this pamphlet. The tune was penned as a campaign song for the Progressive Party's mayoral candidate for 1949, Walter A. O'Brien, Jr. As the lyrics of the song indicate, O'Brien and his party shared Schirmer's stance against fare hikes:

"Now you citizens of Boston, don't you think it is a scandal
That the people have to pay and pay?
Join Walter A. O'Brien
And fight the fare increase
Get poor Charlie off the M.T.A."
Will Evans
Chief Rare Materials Catalog Librarian
Credit: Schirmer, Daniel B. The Truth about the MTA, (Boston: D.B. Schirmer, 1949) Gift, Herbert I. Jackson, Oct. 17, 1953.

New Discussion Group:  Philosophy

Wish to step back from your routine? Take time to examine the whys and hows in life? Join us the first Tuesday of every month to look at current issues engaging philosophical traditions. David Getzin will be the member liaison, and the plan is to cast a wide net with participants suggesting authors and topics of interest. The first month's and subsequent readings may be found on the Philosophy Group webpage.
Emilia Mountain
Reader Services Assistant
Credit: "The Brain as Seen in Position within the Skull," in The Relations of Mind and Brain by Henry Calderwood (London: Macmillan & Co, 1879), p. 12.

In Memoriam:  Arthur Vershbow

Word has just reached us of the death, just a month after his 90th birthday, of Arthur Vershbow, retired President of the Board of Trustees of the Boston Athenæum.
Arthur's background was in engineering. He held both undergraduate and graduate degrees from MIT. But like so many from that enlightened institution, his interests were broad and deeply humanistic. It was Arthur's passion for books and book collecting that brought his many talents to 10 ½ Beacon Street. He and his wife, Charlotte, built a remarkably fine and wide-ranging library, including a collection of illustrated books that is considered one of the best in private hands anywhere. It began with the early printed illustrated books of Europe and eventually spread across the globe. It included many fine examples from Japan.
Arthur was elected to the Athenæum's Board of Trustees in 1977 and became its President five years later. His knowledge and understanding of books and book collecting in particular were endlessly useful to our director and curators. He retired from active Board duties in February 2000, although he continued to serve as our Honorary Curator of Illustrated Books.
Here at 10 ½ Arthur is neither gone nor forgotten. As I write this, the Vershbows' many donations grace our special collections, the beautiful Vershbow Reading Room provides a graceful, inspiring home for scholars and readers of all stripes, his book fund provides new additions to our book collections, and his infectious knowledge and enthusiasm for books and bibliography lingers everywhere. We will miss Arthur Vershbow the man, but his spirit will forever be part of the institution to which he gave so much.
Paula Matthews
Stanford Calderwood Director and Librarian