Inside the Chronicle: Cataloging Chinese Rare Books at Princeton-A History

This series gives readers an inside look into the scholarly articles that grace the pages of the Princeton University Library Chronicle.

The following is excerpted from the Autumn/Winter 2020 issue; Volume LXXVIII, No. 1.

Cataloging Chinese Rare Books at Princeton: A History, by Martin J. Heijdra

THE PUBLICATION in 2017 of "Catalog of Chinese Rare Books Held in the Princeton University Library" by the National Library of China Press represents the culmination of years of efforts within and without the East Asian Library. The core of the two-volume work describes rare books in the world-famous Gest Collection, named after its original collector, Guion Moore Gest 葛思德 (1864– 1948). 

Volume 1 of the “Catalog of Chinese Rare Books Held in the Princeton University Library” (National Library of China Press, 2017).

When the Gest Chinese Research Library moved in 1937 to Princeton University from its original location at McGill University in Montreal, Princeton took on responsibility to make the collection known to researchers worldwide. It is to the credit of the administrators of the Princeton University Library that they took this charge seriously, and over the years catalogs exemplary for their time have been created by an impressive array of professionals. The publication of the newest catalog offers an opportunity to tell briefly the history of the earlier ones; over the past seventy-five years, they have become part of history themselves, reflecting the circumstances and thoughts of the times in which they were compiled.

As is well known, the assembly of the collection in the relatively short period 1928–1936 was largely the work of Irvin Van Gorder Gillis 義理壽 (1875–1948), Gest’s personal representative and collaborator. Gillis soon judged the cataloging done by the person hired at McGill to be insufficient and took over the work himself. The Gest archives at Princeton still contain the various states of his entries, from buyer’s notes and packing slips to a whole shelf of the final beautiful volumes bound in red silk. When the Institute for Advanced Study and the Rockefeller Foundation acquired the collection for Princeton, Gillis no longer had a formal relationship with it, a situation that did not please him. After some misunderstandings were cleared up, one of the first actions undertaken by the Institute was to pay for the publication of an index to the collection according to Gillis’s own principles. Co-authored with his collaborator, Bai Bingqi 白炳 , it was published under the title "Geside dong fang cang shu ku shu mu 葛思德東方 書庫書, Title Index to the Catalogue of the Gest Oriental Library." A salient aspect of this work is that it was published in traditional Chinese thread-bound style in 1941, when Gillis was under house arrest at the British consulate in Beijing. At that time, the Gest Collection comprised approximately 100,000 volumes (that is, ce 册, Chinese fascicles), amounting to some 5,000 “titles.”

About the Princeton University Library Chronicle
The Princeton University Library Chronicle is an interdisciplinary journal sponsored by the Friends of Princeton University Library since 1930. Its mission is to publish articles of scholarly importance and general interest based on research in the collections of the Princeton University Library (PUL). The Chronicle welcomes submissions of articles relating to all facets of the collections. We also welcome articles relating to the history of the University and the Princeton region. The entire archives of the Chronicle (1939-) and its predecessor, Biblia (1930-1938), are available, open-access, full-text on JSTOR.

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Media Contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications


Published March 14, 2022.