Home Libraries: A Small, Slow Start

It started off innocuous enough. My dad had a few books, mostly on Confederate officers and Gettysburg from over the years. I had a few young reader type books on the Civil War from my childhood but there were not many books on the Civil War for kids back then. Mostly I looked at the maps in my father’s Centennial History of the Civil War by Bruce Catton. I loved placing my plastic Civil War soldiers on top of the maps and have mock battles of what was depicted on the page. As I grew older, and girls and garage bands took center stage in my life, those books were boxed up and put away. It was not until halfway through my undergraduate degree that my passion for studying the American Civil War returned, and the foundations of my current library began.

The beginnings of my current library, then, began with my attending Gettysburg College and the prestigious Gettysburg Semester. The reading lists for my classes with famed Lincoln scholar Dr. Allen Guelzo were extensive, and within just a few short months my library was already up to dozens of books. Although I learned an innumerable amount from Dr. Guelzo, as far as books and my library are concerned I learned how to separate the wheat from the chaff, quality works to better understand this period and junk to avoid. Let’s face it, there is plenty of both out there. I’m looking at you 1,001 Strange and Fascinating Facts about the Civil War.

While attending Gettysburg College, I had an internship at Gettysburg National Military Park in the Interpretation Division. Part of the internship required researching and writing programs that are given to the visiting public. More books were required, and although I could freely borrow them from the park’s library, there was something about having my own copies that made me seek them out. It was also during this time that I came across the recommended reading list for the Licensed Battlefield Guide exam. The guides have been around for over 100 years at Gettysburg and have some of the most well-versed historians on the battle. The reading list was to assist those that were interested in taking the difficult exam, which very few make it through the entirety of the process. To me, it became my shopping list. Whenever this poor undergraduate went to Gettysburg, I swung by my favorite used bookstores and crossed off another 5-10 books off the list. I tried to read them all before my next trip, ensuring my money was going to good use and not just collecting dust on a shelf.

A view of my Official Records and unit histories.

Within a few years I was able to complete that list, with my library then numbering several hundred titles. But, with my appointment as a seasonal Park Ranger at Gettysburg, I quickly learned that there were many essential titles I was still missing. Buying began in earnest. What happened next decimated my wallet. I realized as a serious researcher, writer, and historian of this time period I needed more primary sources in my personal library. I began buying large sets, Confederate Military History, Confederate Veteran, Southern Historical Society Papers, Time Life, Voices of the Civil War, and on and on and on. The biggest set, and the hunt for it, I must thank the one and only Mr. Matt Atkinson. Matt taught me how to piece together the Official Records one book at a time and for cheap. Mission accepted! Over the next several years I pieced all 128 volumes and index together, never spending more than $5 on a book with most still in the shrink wrap!

There is not much left out there that I feel I need for my library. Of course when new titles come out that seem appealing I will pick them up. I also continue to plug holes in my battles and campaigns section of my library, adding essential books on engagements I own nothing on or know nothing about. I keep my biography section pretty lean, as I do with regimentals. That’s a rabbit hole I cannot go down! Plus, most of the regimentals I own I purchased for a research project and the others that I need are usually online for free these days. Of course there are a myriad of other topics that are represented in my library that I could discuss but this post has already gone on too long and I’ve got four new titles I bought at a used bookstore this weekend that need to be entered into my library database and squeezed onto an already overburdened bookshelf.

My battles and campaigns section of my library.

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