By John W. Hessler, Library of Congress/Giles, 2019, 176 p. ill. ISBN 9781911282396 (h/c), $35.00.

Reviewed May 2020
Clayton C. Kirking, Independent Library Consultant, New York, New York, ckirking@gmail.com

hesslerIn a surprisingly thrifty number of pages, John W. Hessler, Curator of the Jay I. Kislak Collection at the Library of Congress, has succinctly outlined the history of the Americas from 1500 BCE to the twentieth century. In very readable prose Hessler traces the march of this history based upon collections held by the Library of Congress. The majority of the objects discussed are from the 2004 gift of nearly 4000 objects collected by Jay I. Kislak, an extraordinary collection that he and his wife, Jean, had assembled over a period of some fifty years.

This book is a welcome introduction to the early American collections at the Library of Congress, as well as providing insight into the manner in which these collections were acquired and formed. In that context, it will be appropriate for a general art collection, an institution documenting the practice of collecting, or those tracking the history of libraries in the United States.

The volume is well put together, a compact, tight design makes it a comfortable read, as well as an informative one. Beneficially, it is illustrated throughout with high quality illustrations. The three-dimensional objects are well turned out in full color photographs by Lee Ewing. Reproductions of documents from related collections are also very high quality, although the format limits the size. One used to looking at reproduced paintings might find the lack of dimensions annoying, especially in the case of a remarkable sixteenth-century painting series illustrating the arrival of Hernán Cortés in Tabasco and the progress of his subjugation and colonization of the Aztec Empire.

From the point of view of a librarian, Hessler’s text provides a fascinating glimpse into the history of the nation’s library, which is not unlike that of many local and regional libraries. Records of provenance are far from complete, great portions of collections are not cataloged, and funding is always short. Of course, much has been written on the institutional history of the Library of Congress, but Collecting for a New World introduces a subject that begs for far greater examination. It also allows for broader consideration of other Library of Congress collections that would be well-served by a formal, published overview.

The scholarly apparatus of the volume ticks all the right boxes: the inclusion of well-written end notes; two appendices presenting the translation of critical, early documents; brief, but solid suggested readings; and, an index. The hard cover edition will hold up well in a public or research collection. The title would be appropriate on a reading list for American history, library history, collecting, or Latin America.