Description and History of the Collection
When Trinity College became Duke University in 1924, a 1.4 million dollar endowment was allocated for “the Library Budget Fund.” This money was dedicated to purchasing books for the new university’s library. At the same time, the Department of Modern and Classical Languages was separated into two large departments: 1) The Department of Slavic and Germanic Language; 2) the Department of Romance Languages, which is today called the Department of Romance Studies. Thanks to the influence of Professor Wannamaker (MA, Harvard), the former chair of the Department of Modern Languages who had recently become the Dean of Trinity College, the French and the Spanish sections received a donation from these particular “Library Budget funds” which would allow them to the develop and enrich their collection of volumes. While residing in Paris at the Hôtel de la Cloche for several months in 1926, A.M. Webb, the chairman of the Department of Romance Languages, sought after large libraries to purchase.
According to library brokers of Paris, the largest available library (11,000 volumes) was that of the former director of l’Ecole Normale Supérieure and famous historian of French literature, Gustave Lanson. Gustave Lanson, who was born in Orléans in 1857, published his Histoire de la littérature française in 1894 where he developed a system of rigorous literary critiques adapted from methods of historical analysis; these critiques focused on the historical aspect and exterior of literary works. He became even more influential thanks to the collective project Manuel bibliographique de la littérature française (1909-1912). Over the course of thirty years, he was so influential on literature and on written critiques that his colleagues, along with writers, poets, playwrights all felt obligated to dedicate their most recent work to Lanson, the “Master.” Following the untimely death of his son Michel, Lanson decided to sell his library, and he asked the bookseller, Auguste Picard, to be his agent.
From the start, Lanson seemed particularly interested in selling his books to an American university, and more specifically, to one of the prestigious universities on the East Coast of the United States where he had been invited many times. Harvard, Columbia and Princeton Universities were all possibilities. Yet these institutions already had considerable collections of French books, and none of them wanted to buy the ensemble that also included books which they already owned. Lanson insisted that the library be bought in its entirety and bear his name. Only Duke’s representative could guarantee the “Master’s” requirements. Lanson required three mandatory demands before his books would be shipped to the United States: 1) that all the works be bound in a uniform manor in France; 2) that each book be stamped on the back with a fleur-de-lis seal bearing his name; 3) that the book plate in the second cover indicate his library as the work’s place of origin. The proposed price in 1926 was 125,000 francs (today - 375.000 euros or $325,000). Picard attempted to augment the price once he learned of Duke’s need for French texts, but Webb contacted Lanson directly and a joint agreement was concluded without intermediary. In 1927, for the sum originally proposed, plus the expenses of soft binding, shining, transportation, and other payable rights, Lanson’s library was sold in its entirety and would be coming to Duke University. Duke also needed a definitive inventory of the works from their Parisian representatives; once indexed, all the books were confided to a bookbinder friend of Lanson and then sent to Duke. Lanson gave himself the individual pleasure of keeping nearly 500 of his volumes that were necessary for his courses and for his writings, but these books, as well as those that were acquired between 1924 and his death, had to be immediately marked as property of Duke in order to prevent any contestation at the moment of the master’s disappearance.
Although Lanson died in 1934, the volumes were continually transferred until 1936. In total more than 11,000 works from Lanson’s library comprise the French collection of Perkin’s Library. Most of them, including those with dedications, are at the disposition of the public on the shelves of the library; some of the rare works were placed in Perkins’ Rare Book Room. In 1984, the Tenth Colloquium on 20th Century French Studies was held at Duke University. The Lanson collection was showcased because of its French works dating from the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century which are difficult to find elsewhere in the United States. Since then, many European and North American scholars have come to research the exceptionally rich collection. In collaboration with the services of the library, a group of researchers and doctoral students have worked to create a systematic census of the works, a list of works with dedications from the author, and a compilation of Lanson’s marginalia. An annotated publication of the dedications and marginalia is envisioned for when this inventory is complete.