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George Vanderbilt's Library
A Dream Realized

An Interview with Suzanne Durham

by Craig Stark

#72, 10 July 2006

Some of you know that I have a fairly deep background in furniture design and construction, so it probably won't come as a surprise that I have every intention to someday, somehow, build a library for my books. A dedicated, working library - built-in shelving and cabinets; raised-panel wainscoting; a fireplace with a detailed, hand-carved mantel surmounted by a large oil painting depicting ... I don't know ... maybe a Scottish hunting scene with hounds on the chase and multi-colored pheasants flapping in the sky; a massive world globe (of course) mounted in a floor stand, and so on. Getting the picture? Anybody else have this same dream? Well, like you, I also have a fairly deep background in books, and perhaps this is why I was so profoundly moved, if not awestruck, when I visited George W. Vanderbilt's Biltmore Estate Library for the first time earlier this year. Twice I went, actually. Thankfully, I saw more detail the second time. The first time I was just ... overwhelmed.

If you haven't been, I guarantee you that the most gifted writer would fail to do justice to it in words, so it's perhaps better to show you a photograph - no, not here. Click this link to get the full impact.

And this is only a portion of the 40' x 60' room, only some of the 10,000 books that inhabit it. If any library could ever be fairly described as a realized dream, surely this is it. Vanderbilt was a bibliophile of the first magnitude, and he spared no expense in expressing it at Biltmore. Yes, some would say over-expressing it. Doubtless many book lovers who came before me experienced the same sensations I did. Asked the same questions. Wondered. Especially at those tantalizing books near the floor, spectacularly bound in rich, gilt-decorated leather and as tall as your knee. Can I hold one? Can I sit in front of the fireplace and ... read one?

Of course you can't, and it's almost maddening to be so close to them. Later, what made it even worse was my almost inexplicable failure, following my first visit, to locate any meaningful information on the library's collection. And it wasn't as though I didn't dig. And the more I dug, the more the mystery grew. What sorts of treasures were hidden on those shelves? Nobody seemed to know. Or nobody was talking. Fortunately, there were answers in the end, though not necessarily the ones I wanted to hear. Some of them came from BookThink's master librarian/researcher Pamela Palmer; some from Todd Walker, an enthusiastic, generous leader of a Biltmore Yahoo group who has been visiting the estate for years, talking to staff members, and assembling a significant collection of photographs and relevant material; and finally, some from Biltmore Special Collections Manager Suzanne Durham, who was gracious enough to do an interview with me for BookThink - and it was she who cast a cooler, more reasoned light on the mystery. Let's start with her.

BookThink: In researching for this interview, I was struck by the dearth of material available not only on the Biltmore Estate but especially on the library. Even at the Pack Memorial Library in Asheville, which maintains a strong collection of North Carolina history, the reference librarian was able to point me to only five books about the Biltmore Estate, none of which had more than superficial information about the library - and the Univ. of North Carolina library was much the same. Given the architectural and historical significance of the Estate, also its more recent status as a major tourist destination, why isn't there more information available?

Durham: First, I will list the published works you may or may not be aware of - John Bryan's Biltmore Estate a most distinguished private place; Howard Covington's Lady on the Hill (2006); the Guidebook (I believe you got a copy in your media kit), and the pictorial history of Biltmore Estate from Arcadia Publishers (2004). Biltmore Estate is not a public institution and it is not even a private non-profit. It is a family-owned business. Ultimately, the book collection makes up a part of the family's assets along with the art, furniture and other collections. So it is not a library in the sense that the public can use it, or that it is even used by the family or staff. The books are museum objects. Therefore, if you see where I'm going with this, there would be little point in publicizing the book collection since the average guest does not get to handle it or even see it up close. In addition, since books are a lot easier to steal than a wingback chair, and there is a theft history, we do not want to flaunt the collections. We do answer specific queries if someone wants to know if a certain title is in the collection, or if a certain author is represented.

BookThink: When I visited the library on June 3 this year, it was a windy day and many windows were open, sheer curtains floating in the air, including several in the library. Is Asheville weather (temperature, humidity, etc.) environmentally friendly enough to books to allow this kind of exposure? Are conditions in the library regularly monitored? Adjusted?

Durham: It's amazing to anyone that for over 100 years these books have sat in a room exposed to the wide variances in temperature and humidity and have not completely disintegrated. There has been discussion for years about how to do climate control in the Library. It is a stumper. I think there are 2 factors that work in our favor - the books are virtually not handled and there is no pest problem with these books. We are currently exploring a system of opening the doors on either side of the fireplace on the balcony level to create an updraft in order to keep the heat and humidity from collecting at the ceiling level. We have recently catalogued all the balcony level books and found a significant amount of deterioration at that level. We have a temp/RH monitor at the balcony level and have charted the fluctuations for a number of years. It will serve as our main rationale when we finally get a plan for installing climate control. However, the concept of c.c. in the Library, much less the entire house, is a logistical nightmare, not to mention hugely expensive.

BookThink: I also noticed that similarly sized volumes were shelved together and that lighting overall was dim. Is this a deliberate strategy to minimize exposure to light?

Durham: The original light levels were dim by today's standards anyway so the lighting is authentic, you could say. Light affects the fabric and furniture as well as books in that room.

BookThink: I was told that a UV filtering film had been applied to the windows. True?

Durham: Yes, there is UV filtering film on the windows.

BookThink: Are any other measures taken to preserve the collection?

Durham: The books and shelves in the Library are dusted and vacuumed every other year.

BookThink: It's my understanding that somebody was hired in 1997 to catalog the holdings. Was the work completed?

Durham: I began a book cataloguing project when I came here in fall 2003. It is not a catalogue in the sense of Library of Congress call numbers, subject headings, etc. It is actually an inventory of every book in the collection, noting location, condition, exceptional features and basic publication information. We are about 75% complete at this time and expect to finish by the winter 2007. We are entering the inventory data into a database we intend to migrate to new data programs, unlike the last catalogue, which did not survive technologically past the 1980s. The earliest catalogue, from our archives records, appears to have been done by James Osborne Wright, we believe a book dealer, from Fairfield CT. He was finishing up the catalogue in 1898, and was still corresponding with George Vanderbilt near his death in 1914. There have been other catalogues over the years, and we have a card catalogue (again inventory) from perhaps the 1950s.

BookThink: Will it be made available to the public?

Durham: The newest catalogue will not be made public for the same reasons I explained earlier.

BookThink: Has a recent appraisal been done?

Durham: Yes, every 5 years or so, the contents of the house, including the book collection, are professionally appraised for tax purposes.

BookThink: If approximately 10,000 volumes are in the library and perhaps a few thousand more scattered in rooms open to public view - and about 23,000 in all - where are the remaining volumes?

Durham: Until we finish our inventory, we won't have a good number to put on the collection. The number put out there is 22,000 plus. About 7,000 books reside with the family off the estate, and the rest are stored in a climate-controlled suite of rooms on the second floor. The Den contained several thousand books until this past year when we moved all of them to the climate-controlled space.

BookThink: What are some of the more noteworthy and/or valuable titles in the collection?

Durham: I can give you a sampling, but this is only scratching the surface of rare examples in the collection: Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Sibylline Leaves (first edition, London 1817 with notes and corrections of the author), John Burnet's Rembrandt and His Works (limited edition of 50 with original engravings and etchings, London 1849), Frederick Catherwood's Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (25 plates, original publisher's binding, London 1844), John Gould's The Birds of Europe (5 volumes, London 1837), and a unique collection of Holland House books, which includes 10 volumes of autograph letters addressed to various members of the Lord Holland family. Napoleon Bonaparte, Queen Elizabeth, Oliver Cromwell are some of the correspondents represented.

BookThink: I understand that some books, one of which was quite valuable, were stolen during the filming of Tim Conway's (and Don Knott's) "The Private Eyes" in 1980. Can you tell me more about this?

Durham: The book theft you refer to actually began in the late 1970s, according to our Vice President of Biltmore House and Gardens Rick King. The missing books were noticed during filming of the movie in early 1980. The thief was a security guard on the third shift and was later convicted and sent to prison for 6 years. It's important to note that security and electronic surveillance systems have been considerably stepped up since then.

BookThink: Were they ever recovered?

Durham: Several hundred were taken, and most were eventually recovered from all over the country.

BookThink: I've heard that GWV purchased many books unbound so as to have them bound to his preference.

Durham: Yes, he bought many books from publishers and had his own binding preferences done using prominent binders of the day, notably Riviere & Sons of London.

BookThink: Here is an excerpt from the Sandusky Daily Register, October 22, 1890, that seems to conflict with the present-day reality of the library:

"He is not a bibliophile, as Brayton Ives, late president of the Stock Exchange, and some other wealthy men are, but he buys a book for what is in it, rather than on account of its age, exquisite binding or any other peculiarity which makes books sought for by bibliophiles. When there are new publications which the publisher with whom he deals thinks he would like they are sent to him for inspection, and he is one of the rich men in New York to whom the dealer in old books sends a private and special catalogue when something choice has been received and is for sale."

Do you have some sense of the criteria Vanderbilt used for purchasing books? Was it primarily motivated by his interests?

Durham: We don't have any direct evidence explaining how George Vanderbilt made his book-buying decisions. Certainly he was influenced by what was considered popular for the day. We have correspondence showing that Vanderbilt was personally fond of Sir Walter Scott all his life. Obviously, he had sufficient wealth to also be solicited by book dealers who came across rare and valuable titles at estate sales in Europe.

BookThink: So there's no indication that he purchased books on the basis, say, of building a more general collection that would address the needs/wants of visitors, etc.?

Durham: He has more than 100 works by Balzac, for example, but we don't know if that was for the content or whether it was considered a well-equipped library to have Balzac so heavily represented.

BookThink: Is access to the library ever granted for purposes of academic research?

Durham: For original academic research, we have a policy of allowing access to parts of the collection. However, here we must be truthful and say that very little of Vanderbilt's collection is truly rare. Most books in his collection can be found at libraries and other repositories around the country, which are equipped to handle researchers.

BookThink: Then would it be fair to say that the value of the collection lies primarily in its provenance and the overall quality of bindings?

Durham: There are a few extremely valuable and rare items in the collection, though primarily it's the provenance. Not sure I would say the bindings give it its greatest value, though certainly a significant feature.

BookThink: Approximately how long has it been since open access (to guests, etc.) was available?

Durham: I imagine that once the house was no longer used as a residence (1954), the library was no longer used by guests or visitors. The house was opened to paid tours in 1930, but we have no evidence that these visitors were allowed to peruse the Library collection.

BookThink: Is the present day appearance of the library (and arrangement of books on shelves) more or less as it was 100 years ago?

Durham: We don't know if the current appearance of the Library books resembles its original design.

BookThink: How are the books organized on the shelves?

Durham: Roughly speaking, the shelves to the left of the fireplace (balcony) cover U.S. history and to the right literature. The balcony level east wall also holds literature books, and the west balcony wall seems to cover world history. On the main floor, east wall, are reference works especially dealing with architecture and art. The west wall contains bound periodicals and reference works on architectural and art antiquities. The south wall contains travel, English grammar reference and art/architecture titles.

BookThink: If and when items are moved, is this at the discretion of the curator or is the family sometimes consulted?

Durham: Over time, books have been removed and replaced by curatorial staff based on the physical condition of the book. In the past year, we replaced a substantial number of balcony level damaged books with books from storage whose bindings were in good condition.

BookThink: Vintage landscape architecture titles are a profitable niche for booksellers now. Can you tell something about this portion of the collection? Approximately how many titles? Anything else?

Durham: We can't approximate the number of landscape design books, partly because we have not finished the inventory and partly because we have not done subject heading cataloguing as previously discussed. Keyword searches can be done on titles and authors; again, if you are interested in a particular author or title, we'll be happy to check.

BookThink: Did Vanderbilt take an active part in the landscape design of Biltmore and, in turn, acquire these books for that purpose?

Durham: Frederick Law Olmsted was Vanderbilt's chief advisor and designer in landscaping the Biltmore Estate. We do not have evidence that Vanderbilt contributed to the landscape design, though he was certainly consulted and had veto power. In fact, Olmsted's early plan called for a vegetable garden in part of the gardens area and this was not pursued in favor of ornamental flowers, shrubs and trees.

BookThink: I noticed a free-standing shelving unit on the far side of the library with angled compartments for books. What was the purpose of this?

Durham: The book stand you refer to along with three sets of carved steps were designed by Richard Morris Hunt in the Italian Baroque style for the Library. It has compartments for displaying books flat at an angle, and we can guess that this arrangement would have allowed display of very old books whose bindings were not designed for the upright, spine-out display we know today. Early books were shelved lying flat. Just a guess.

BookThink: Can you tell me anything about the large globe to the left of the fireplace?

Durham: The globe dates from 1899 and is mentioned in your guidebook.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: I want to buy it.]

BookThink: The Den off the library has been the subject of at least some speculation over the years - specifically, what it was used for. On a copy (perhaps not authentic) of Hunt's original plans I noted that it was marked "chapel," but it has also been characterized as a scriptorium or chamber of silence. Was it simply a reading room?

Durham: The Library Den was said to have been used by Vanderbilt as an office. It certainly commands the best view of the Estate along with the view from his bedroom. It is said it was here that he met with employees to address their concerns. We have no records in our collection referring to this space as a chapel. Though it has been filled with a much later era of book shelving, and contained several thousand books until recently, we do not have evidence this room was used as a library.

BookThink: Why is it closed to the public?

Durham: It was open for tour at one time from the loggia, but due to weather and flow problems, was closed again.

BookThink: A final question - there are some subtly hinged panels on the library walls, one of which, I'm told, now conceals an electrical panel. Any idea what these were originally used for?

Durham: You will have to ask the PR staff to track down an explanation for this. If they are concealing electrical panels today, they might have served that purpose originally since the house was electrified from the beginning.

BookThink: Thank you, Suzanne, for sharing your expertise with us.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Suzanne K. Durham has been Special Collections Manager for The Biltmore Company since 2003. She has worked in university libraries and public archives In Virginia and Kentucky since 1989. She received her MLS from the University of Kentucky.

For "A Brief Bibliography of Gardening and Related Books in the BWV Library," click here.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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