Most people would say there’s a clear distinction between a library and a museum. A library circulates books and audio/visual materials to people who want to use them; a museum collects valuable objects in order to protect and preserve them.
But, as it happens, major libraries have a museum-like function — they have special collections of all sorts of unusual and offbeat material, often of a local nature. And as time marches on and those collections get older, they take on increased meaning, value and fascination.
Some public libraries, like Los Angeles’, have even set up small museums and/or galleries to show off their collections. That is happening with the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, too.
Through the end of this month, Downtown’s Main Library has an excellent example of what can be done with these special collections. My Castle on the Nile: Illustrated Sheet Music by Black Composers 1880-1944 is on display primarily in the third floor Cincinnati Room.
Then, on March 7, the Library dips into the prints from Cincinnati’s old Strobridge Lithography Company to show some of its late-19th/early-20th-century circus, theater and magic-show posters. Up though May 28, the exhibit is nicely timed to coincide with a similar show of Strobridge circus posters at Cincinnati Art Museum.
The Library has over 1,000 Strobridge posters from that era, all donated when the company was sold in 1960. There are some oddities in the collection, such as an aerial view of Camp Dennison, reports Patricia Van Skaik, who runs the Cincinnati Room.
Anyone who hasn’t seen My Castle on the Nile should really try to get there before it ends.
Curated by Theresa Leininger-Miller, an associate professor of art history at UC, it’s absorbing as both art and as American history/sociology. As the latter, its lessons are bittersweet. For all the accomplishments of these songwriters, they had to negotiate a racist society where they were expected to conform to stereotypes. The cover art, usually by white illustrators, reflects that. (The Library has some 10,000 song sheets in its collection, since Cincinnati was once a publishing center.)
There are some fascinating stories here. Henry Creamer and Turner Layton wrote a tune that Sophie Tucker recorded, “After You’ve Gone.” There is self-taught composer James A. Bland’s 1878 “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” which, in 1914, became the first recording by a classical artist (Alma Gluck) to sell a million copies. And then there is Gussie Davis, who left his native Cincinnati for New York and a solid songwriting career on Tin Pan Alley, the first African American to do so. He wrote the famous “folk” song, “Irene, Goodnight.”
There are many other special collections in the Library waiting to be explored and discovered, including one with some 250 charts and posters covering scientific and technological subjects and a huge map collection that includes 20 globes. Additionally, the Library has a collection of around 25,000 theater, dance, music and film programs.
One of my favorite special collections consists of restaurant menus. You can hungrily watch Cincinnati commercial and social history — as well as dining trends and prices — change through the decades as you peruse the bills of fare from long-gone places like The Heritage, Gourmet Room, Busy Bee, Caproni’s, Central Oyster House, Cricket, InCahoots, Jack & Klu’s, Mahogany Hall, Perri’s Pancakes, The Playboy Club, Pigall’s, Shuller’s Wigwam, Warren Sublette’s Winery, Wiggins, Zimmer’s, Zinos and maybe more. It’s one really worth an exhibition — hopefully with snacks.
For more information, visit www.cincinnatilibrary.org.
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