SFPUL visits Antiquarian Book Fair in Spring 2023

During the Spring 2023 semester, five members of the Student Friends of Princeton University Library (SFPUL) visited the 63rd Annual ABAA New York International Antiquarian Book Fair, a four-day festival held at the New York Armory where booksellers from around the globe meet to share their wares. 

Kurt Lemai-Nguyen (center) with members of the Student Friends of PUL

Kurt Lemai-Nguyen (center) with members of the Student Friends of PUL at the Antiquarian Book Fair.

The students were hosted by Joe Felcone, a former bookseller and member of the Friends of Princeton University Library, who now often makes purchases on behalf of Princeton's Special Collections. “We had been given a budget to purchase a book for Princeton, allowing us to practice the thought process that goes into making acquisitions,” said Kurt Lemai-Nguyen, co-leader of the Student Friends. “The trip also allowed us to ask questions about potential research ideas, and to consider the various needs of scholarly communities.”

After being introduced to a handful of vendors and dealers, the students were let loose to explore at their leisure. 

“The armory was blinding, with bright backlights illuminating innumerable manuscripts and pamphlets,” Lemai-Nguyen recalled. “In a place that feels so vast and overwhelming, sometimes, the best thing to do is to just pick a direction and start walking.” 

Lemai-Nguyen and his colleagues came across a variety of items, including first editions and signed copies of books by authors such as Vladimir Nabokov and Sylvia Plath.  

The students also encountered a familiar face, Setsuko Noguchi, the Japanese Studies Librarian at Princeton University Library (PUL). “She explained to me that she was there to pick up some items identified in the previous few days for acquisition, brought me over to the vendor, Kagerou Bunko, who showed me a woodblock print entitled ‘The Drunkard’s Progress,’” Lemai-Nguyen said. 

“The vendor explained that it was a warning against alcoholism, inspired by the US temperance movement in the late 19th century, and served as a precursor to the women's rights movement,” he added.” It was incredibly cool to see one of Princeton’s acquisitions before it was brought to the University. Seeing it at the book fair contextualized the motivations that went into the purchase, and offered a completely different experience than just seeing a book in the catalog”.

Other items the Student Friends encountered included and considered purchasing were a book of French political cartoons from World War II, a catalog of African American hair and beauty products from the 50s, a book on Jimi Hendrix, and a French science education book for girls in 1822. 

“I was geeking out at all the old editions of literature and music that I knew,” said Ergene Kim ‘23. “I think I wanted us to buy more literary-adjacent things, but I was happy with what we chose.”

Lemai-Nguyen added, “Frankly, all the items that we considered would be fantastic purchases, and because they covered a wide range of subjects, then it was near impossible to directly compare them. What it came down to was which items stoked the most passion and curiosity, measured in part by which one was advocated most loudly for,  and what was within our budget.” 

SFPUL’s final choices were “Where? When? How?: A Treatise on the Science and Art of Copulation” by a noted professor of medicine and “Mémoire Sur la Construction des Instruments à Cordes et a Archet” by Félix Savart. 

“We chose the former because of its rarity with only one other institution holding it in Worldcat, and the potential questions that could be asked about the way the medical world viewed and conceptualized procreation in the past,” Lemai-Nguyen explained. “The latter we chose because of our curiosity towards how a mathematician approached musical design and translated his knowledge into this alternative trapezoidal shaped violin.”

He added, “This was an incredible opportunity to explore a part of the book collecting world, which is often difficult for students to gain access to. We all gained a newfound appreciation for the work of librarians and book sellers, motivating us to continue exploring this field. One student even bought a German 1825 book about science for herself, potentially starting her own journey in book collecting!” 

Published on September 11, 2023

Written by Brandon Johnson, Communications Strategist

Media Contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications