Arts and Leisure

The 1773 Old Librarians Almanack: The Literary Fraud That Fooled the Critics

In 1773, librarian Jared Bean published his Old Librarians Almanack in New Haven, Conn., following the traditional format of Poor Richard’s almanac. On one page it contained weather predictions and advice on the next. But rather than advice for farmers, Bean’s almanac contained advice for librarians. It dealt with such topics as protection of books, books to be burned, organizing books and strict rules for who should be allowed in the library.

Old Librarians Almanac

Old Librarians Almanack

One quick read through the Old Librarians Almanack and you might think: This is too good to be true. And you’d be right. The almanac was a work of satirical fiction written by librarian and author Edmund Lester Pearson.

The Man Behind the Old Librarians Almanack

Pearson, born in Newburyport on Feb. 11, 1880, later served the library there as trustee. He graduated from Harvard and then earned an M.L.S. from the New York State Library School at Albany. Over his career he worked at the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library and the Military Information Division of the War Department.

Rose Reading Room in the New York Public Library.

He also wrote books. He published his most famous book (aside from the Old Librarians Almanack), Studies in Murder, in 1924. It had a signature essay on Lizzie Borden.

From 1906 to 1920, Pearson wrote a humorous weekly column for the Boston Evening Transcript called The Librarian. It gave him the idea for the Old Librarians Almanack, as it featured the fictional Ezra Beesly Free Public Library of the town of Baxter.

Pearson swore that he never intended anyone to take his almanac seriously. But when first published in 1909, people viewed it as a true, historic almanac that shed light on library practices in colonial times.

‘Keep out the light-witted’

Jared Bean displayed a fiercely protective attitude toward library books.

“Keep your books behind stout Gratings, and in no wise let any Person come at them to take them from the Shelf except yourself,” Bean cautioned.

He had a long list of people to keep out of his precious library.

“Let no Politician be in your Library, nor no man who Talks overmuch,” he wrote. “It will be difficult for him to observe Silence, and he is objectionable otherwise, as well.”

Newburyport Public Library

Also verboten: “No Astrologer, Necromancer, Charlatan, Quack, nor Humbug; no Vendor of Nostrums, nor Teacher of false Knowledge, no fanatick Preacher nor Refugee. Admit no one of loose or evil Life; prohibit the Gamester, the Gypsy, the Vagrant. Allow none who suffers from an infectious Disease; and none whose Apparel is so Gaudy or Eccentrick as to attract the Eye.”

Finally, he advised, “Keep out the Light-witted, the Shallow, the Base and Obscene. See to it that none enter who are Senile, and none who are immature in their Minds, even tho’ they have reach’d the requir’d Age.

Shun them as the devil

When it came to women, Bean, apparently a bachelor, held generally unfavorable views.

“Matrimony, so maintained worthy Master Peleg Gudger, is no fit Diversion for the Librarian, and in truth, I commend his Wisdom in the Matter.”

Women also caused concern as library patrons.

“Be suspicious of Women. They are given to the Reading of frivolous Romances, and at all events, their presence in a Library adds little,” Bean wrote. “You will make no error in excluding them altogether.”

While some librarians held that a man’s duties to his marriage and his library could co-exist, Bean turned to his trusted guide, fellow librarian Enoch Sneed, for the final word on the matter:

“Steer a straight course, he says, away from feminine Blandishments. These Females are as Leeches or Bloodsuckers, hardly to be torn off. They would make you take your Victuals at certain fix’d seasons to conform to their rules of Housekeeping, regarding not that you may wish to read at those Hours; while again they will Babble & Complain should it chance that after a hard night’s reading you ask that a hot Supper be served at Daybreak. Shun them as you would the Devil.”

Most of Bean’s writings deal with the proper care of books and the library, along with his disdain for those who would misuse them. For example, he wove this poem among the weather forecasts.

On gallows fifty cubits high

Hang the wretch and let him die

A dozen of my books he stole

May God have mercy on his soul

A Curse for Book Thieves

And he offers an earlier perspective on thievery, as well – one which has been quoted as true many times:

“What condemnation shall befit the accurst Wretch (for he cannot justly claim the title of Man) who pilfers and purloins for his own selfish ends such a precious article as a book? I am reminded of the Warning display’d in the Library of the Popish Monastery of San Pedro at Barcelona. This is the version Englished by Sir Matthew Mahan, who saw it writ in Latin in the Monastery, as he himself describes in his leam’d Book, ‘Travels in Spanish Countries, 1712.” The Warning reads thus:

“For him that stealeth a Book from this Library, let it change to a Serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with Palsy, and all his Members blasted.”

If that didn’t seem hard-hearted enough, Bean went on: “Let him languish in Pain, crying aloud for Mercy and let there be no surcease to his Agony till he sink to Dissolution. Let Book-worms gnaw his Entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, and when at last he goeth to his final Punishment let the Flames of Hell consume him forever and aye.”

Throughout, Bean draws liberally from the wisdom of his learned colleague, librarian Enoch Sneed. He does, however, take umbrage at Sneed’s suggestion that the domestic mouse is the greatest enemy to libraries. Rather, he proposes, “Of the enemies of Books, I especially esteem the cockroach.” And he provides a recipe for cockroach poison.

Snakebite Cure

In another section of the almanac, Bean offers: “A sure and Certain cure for the Bite of a Rattlesnake made Public by Abel Puffer of Stoughton.”

The recipe calls for an improbable collection of ingredients to mix into a plaster and apply to the snakebite.

“If the sufferer be bit in the Leg (as it is very likely to happen), let him be placed in reversed position; That is with his head down and his Feet in the Air. It may be most convenient to lean him against a Wall or Fence, or if neither be at hand, then against a tree or bush.”

“The plaister should be applied on the wound, and mark that all depends that this is done within ten minutes from the time the sufferer was Bitten,” Bean wrote. And for insurance, he advised, “It may be well that a Minister of the Gospel be sent for, if so be it that one is at hand.”

“Then require the Sufferer to move his limbs about, at first slowly, now with increasing speed with all the Vigour and Rapidity in his power. After this, let him rise and run in a circle, or nearly so, first giving him to drink a half glass of Jamaica Rum.

“When he be ready to fall from Dizziness (which flushed the brain with Blood) again apply a second plaister, like the first.

“Tokens of improving Health are sure to be seen in the Sufferer: if not Prayers had better be addressed to Providence.”

Hints Not Taken

The book includes hints that it’s a parody, such as its improbable weather predictions. “I guess there will be a storm of snow about this time, then clear,” reads one. Nevertheless, critics reviewed the almanac as an actual historical reprint.

The Outlook magazine, The Nation, The New York Times and the New York Sun praised the rediscovered gem. The Bulletin of Pharmacy reprinted the snake bite remedy as historical fact.

Not a Hoax

Pearson and publisher John Cotton Dana of Woodstock, Vt., insisted they didn’t intend the publication as a hoax. Rather they saw it as a send-up of old-fashioned thinking among some librarians. Those old timers viewed library patrons as nuisances who distracted librarians from their true calling – their own personal reading.

The two men were probably at least somewhat disingenuous in claiming they never intended the book to fool anyone. Perhaps, though, it succeeded beyond their expectations.

As the hoax gathered steam in the first few months of 1910, Pearson did take steps to prevent embarrassment of several reviewers. He also warned off an historical association that wanted to reprint the almanac as an actual, historical document.

But he did enjoy the furor the book caused, whether he intended it or not. He noted that some libraries still catalogued it under the heading “literary frauds.”

To read the complete almanac, click here. This story about the Old Librarians Almanack was updated in 2021. Images: Rose Reading Room By Diliff – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=533750.

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