Library Collection


The collection of books from Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s personal library currently held at the University of Delaware Library, Museums, and Press is made up of about a hundred titles. It seems likely that her niece Pauline Alice Young (1900-1991) shaped its eventual makeup. If true, the surviving collection has as much to say about how Young wished her aunt to be remembered as it does about Dunbar-Nelson’s book collecting practices. Just seventy-three books out of more than eleven hundred titles (approximately 6%) recorded in Dunbar-Nelson’s reading journals deal expressly with the subject of race; conversely, the overwhelming majority (over 90%) of the holdings from her personal library are works of African American literature and history, with only five or six titles reflecting her broader interests. In many respects, the surviving collection of books from Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s home library aligns more closely with the library of Carter G. Woodson than what is found in her journals. Unfortunately, a lack of physical evidence forces us to speculate as to whether her reading journal records closely adhered to her book collecting. Around one third of the books in the library collection were documented in the reading journals, accounting for less than 3% of its listings. One can easily surmise, then, both from this information and information contained in the diaries, that Dunbar-Nelson must have read books that she opted not to own, collected books that she never read (or, rather, never got around to reading), and read books that she failed to record in her journal. What is clear from what we find among her extant titles is that Dunbar-Nelson refused to resign herself to an intellectual “echo chamber,” and, like Woodson who collected both pro-slavery and anti-slavery works, we find that both authors had the courage to read and collect controversial materials that challenged their espoused worldviews. As readers and as scholars, both were engaged in a longstanding rhetorical convention that encouraged the comprehensive study of opposing viewpoints when developing arguments against racism and white supremacy. In addition to the complete handlist of extant books in Dunbar-Nelson’s library, included here is a list of books that contain interventions. Bibliographic interventions, a term used by institutions such as the University of Iowa and the University of Virginia, broadly describes any changes made to a book by its owners after publication. In this list, the term covers extant books from her library that contain inscriptions, signatures, annotations or other marginalia. Consequence of Dunbar-Nelson’s extensive literary network, many of the books from her personal library are association copies.

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