Ex libris

A mysterious unnamed and undated photo, found in a book recently donated to NEHGS.

When I catalog new books received by the NEHGS library, my normal focus is, naturally, on the contents of the books themselves: the families and places described, the authors, the titles and publication information, and so on. But every now and then, the books we receive contain little “surprises” that go beyond the published words on the page. Over the years, we have found all kinds of objects left in books, from hand-drawn family trees to photographs and calling cards. Some of these items were clearly meant to supplement the books they were left in, and have definite genealogical import; others are only tangentially related to the book’s content. Still others are complete mysteries: we don’t know why they were left in the book, or if they were even left there on purpose.

Supplemental notes and family chart of the Smith family, drawn by John Ward Dean.

We recently found an artifact of the first sort – that is, one with genealogical and informational value – in the back of a 1902 genealogy called Asahel Smith of Topsfield, Mass. Though the book had been in our library collection for years, we did not realize – until the book came down to Technical Services for recataloging and preservation – that a little pocket labeled “Notes” had been attached to the inside back cover of the book. Inside of that pocket was a mini-archive of supplemental material, including handwritten notes, newspaper clippings related to the Smith family, and a hand-drawn genealogical chart of the family of Asahel Smith, composed by John Ward Dean (a former editor of the New England Historical and Genealogical Register and longtime Librarian of the Society).

Though the main text of Asahel Smith is already freely available online through Hathi Trust, we plan to digitize the extra materials from the “Notes” pocket that make our copy unique.

Letter presenting the Rowland genealogy to William Prescott Greenlaw.

Sometimes the items we find tucked between pages or inside covers provide a little extra information about the provenance of the book – that is, where it came from and how it came to be a part of the NEHGS library. For example, in the back of Genealogical Sketch of the Posterity of John Rowland, we found a letter written in 1909 by author Henry J. Rowland presenting the book to William Prescott Greenlaw (another former Librarian for the Society). The letter indicates that it was Greenlaw who contacted Rowland requesting a copy of the book, as Rowland – with almost exaggerated humility – thanks the librarian for the privilege of having his book added to the NEHGS collections:

“I highly appreciate the honor of your courteous request. It is no less a compliment than a surprise. I could never have had the effrontery to send, unasked, a presentation copy to a public library of a production as absolutely personal in its character.”

ex-libris-4Still other “artifacts” found in the pages of books are more curious than informative. For example, the negative at right depicting an unidentified woman with a horse was found in a local history donated to the collection last year.

Since the negative was not accompanied by any kind of note or description, it is difficult to know what (if any) relation it has to the text, or even if the negative was left in the book intentionally. In a similar vein is this recently found invitation to a pianola recital, to be held at three o’clock in the afternoon one day in March 1910:


Who left the invitation in the book, and why? Did the recipient actually go to the recital? Was the invitation left there for some purpose, or was it merely being used as a bookmark? While some artifacts found in books shed light on the past, others remain mysterious.

About Emily Baldoni

Emily Baldoni is the Technical Services/Metadata Librarian. She is responsible for creating, maintaining, and enriching metadata for NEHGS print and digital collections. Emily is originally from Normal, Illinois, and joined the NEHGS staff in 2013. She has an M.A. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University and an M.S. in Library and Information Science from Simmons College. Prior to joining the staff at NEHGS, Emily worked for Harvard College Library and EBSCO Information Services.

10 thoughts on “Ex libris

  1. Before I retired and started concentrating on family history, I was a high school librarian and I frequently found various items apparently used as bookmarks or hidden away and forgotten. Gum wrappers, pictures, notes, but never anything that appeared to be treasures of the sort you have described. You must feel that you are always on a treasure hunt as you examine donated books in preparation for processing.

  2. I love finding surprises like that. Family books that I have inherited occasionally have something that may not have genealogical importance, but does make a personal connection.

  3. Regarding your essay on Mysterious unnamed photos, etc, left in books: I was volunteering at our local genealogical library one day, when a large box of books were donated by a member of the local genealogical society. As I was preparing these books, to be cataloged, 3 photos slipped out. Imagine my surprise to find one of them a photo dated 1900 of the farm buildings where I had grown up three counties away from the location of the library. The lady donating the books was the sister of the landowner who my grandparents, parents, and my husband and I had rented the farm from continuously for over 36 years.

    1. That is a fantastic story. Recently I was sent an old photo of a farm that used to belong to my family and was built by one of my ancestors I looked it up online. She also sent a hand sketch done by a Tax assessor of the farm as it was laid out at the time.To my surprise the farm came up for sale very recently and pictures of the interior were on the Internet And the same thing happened with the house I grew up in. After that I checked other houses for my family grew up and found old real estate listings with photos of the interiors of family homes. I followed one more lead from a census and found a family home two blocks from where I catch the bus in the morning I had no idea that one of my uncles lived in the city where I’ve lived for the last 40 years miles and miles from where I grew up Surprising things pop up all over the place

  4. Once, in a library book in the national archives of another county, I found a slip of paper with the name and contact information of a cousin of my father. Our family had lost contact with him back in the 1930’s. Serendipity plays a role in genealogical research!

  5. This is a wonderful article and very timely. When I started my research I got a copy of a book on my family ( Parishs of N Eng) from and antiquarian book dealer who acquired a first edition copy from an estate the state of the daughter-in-law F L Wright. She was researching my family history to track down his I have her copy with all of her notes and a letter Have not yet found out if she ever wrote a book of her own or if there is one on the Wright family I’m curious which Smith family your book refers to? There was a book written on the Smith family of bull Smith founder of Smithtown Long Island. Any relation? They are also related to me. So I may be even more curious about the notes you found. Copy of that family history is at Yale Yesterday I learned that one of my family members co-authored a well-known book on New England history It’s amazing what falls into your lap or out of the pages of a book Thanks

  6. Being a former technical services librarian and a genealogist I just wanted to let you know how envious I am of your job!!! Keep up the good work.

  7. It may be interesting to note that this handwritten genealogy note was sent by George A Smith, of Salt Lake City. I could not determine which–there are at least three George Albert Smiths who played prominent roles in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. All are the same family of Joseph Smith Jr., the first Prophet and President of the church. Ashael Smith as their ancestor.

  8. I owned two used bookstores for over 20 years. We found numerous photographs in books. We posted them and hoped someone would recognize them and take them home. We also found a 20 dollar bill, love letters, four leaf clovers, pressed flowers, cards and odd drawings. The most memorable item was a glass rectal thermometer in a copy of Dante’s Inferno.

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