“Be suspicious of women. They are given to reading of frivolous romances, and at all events their presence in a Library adds little to (if it does not, indeed, detract from) that aspect of gravity, seriousness and learning … you will make no error by excluding them altogether.”
So warned Jared Bean in ‘The Old Librarian’s Almanac’ — first published in 1773, and one of the rarest books in American Literature. So rare that no one had ever heard of it until 1909, when the Elm Tree Press offered a reprint of it in their six-volume Librarian Series. Their reprint was from one copy, of which only two were known to exist.
John Dana, one of the publishers at Elm Tree Press, had tripped across ‘The Old Librarian’s Almanac’ quite accidentally. Dana had been hired by the estate of a Newburyport, Massachusetts lawyer to catalogue his private library. In a safe he had found a receipt for a number of almanacs the lawyer had collected, which were being held in trust by the Newburyport Antiquarian Society. It was among this collection that Dana found ‘The Old Librarian’s Almanac.’
The almanac was almost impossible to assess, as there was no bibliographic reference to it in existence; The Library of Congress had no record of it. Dana did however track down the receipt of another copy, one which had been sold in 1896 to a physician in St. Louis.
Information about the book’s author was much easier to locate. Dana located Jared Bean’s name in ‘Literary and Genealogical Annals of Connecticut,’ written by Sarah Gilman Bigelow in 1870. Besides standard biographical details, Bigelow describes how she had stumbled across Bean’s gravestone one evening in 1869. Bean’s epitaph was telling: “Death thou has closed ye Book of Life / & Set me free from earthly strife. / Ye page is turn’d & I’m at rest / Ye last word said, Finitum est.”
Bigelow cautioned readers not to go looking for the tombstone, as the entire cemetery has been replaced by electric train tracks.
It wasn’t only women Bean warned about in the almanac. “Let no politician be in your Library, nor no man who talks overmuch. 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 Gypsey, The Vagrant. Allow no one who suffers from an infectious disease; and none whose Apparel is so Gaudy or Eccentrick … 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.”
Bean also instructs librarians to thoroughly interrogate anyone who dares to enter their library. “Any mere trifler, a person that would dally with books, or seek in them shallow amusement, may be dismiss’d without delay.” Bean also forbid anyone under 20 to to use the library, and for librarians to destroy any books which are “merely frivolous.” Bean also saw most patrons as “donkeys” who interrupted his private reading time.
The directives given in ‘The Old Librarian’s Almanac’ are so offensive and outrageous they almost seem as if the whole thing was a joke.
Which is exactly what is was.
No one had ever heard of it before 1909 because it simply did not exist. There no ‘Almanac’, no Jared Bean, no Newburyport lawyer, no Newburyport Antiquarian Society, no ‘Literary and Genealogical Annals of Connecticut’, no Sarah Gilman Bigelow and no gravestone. John Dana created the ‘The Old Librarian’s Almanac’ as a joke — a transparent and humorous publication to accompany the very real volumes of the Elm Tree Press’ Librarian Series.
His partner in crime was Edmund Pearson, a literary humorist who wrote for the ‘Boston Daily Transcript.’ Dana had asked Pearson to write out an actual one — hoping to add a bit of fun to the world of books.
Like all books published by the Elm Tree Press, copies of the ‘Almanac’ were sent to newspapers for reviews. The book editor at ‘The New York Sun’ was the first to publish a review, unfortunately believing the ‘Almanac’ to be the real deal. “We should be sorry to have missed Jared Bean,” wrote the editor. “He stands out as alive in his almanac as he did in life, a proof that librarians are the same in all ages.”
Similar reviews began to appear in ‘The Nation,’ ‘The New York Times,’ and even ‘Publishers Weekly.’ The ‘Providence Sunday Journal,’ a bit more critical than its sister publications, felt the ‘Almanack’ may have been a hoax. But they had experts examine it, and found it to be authentic based on internal and external evidence.
While Pearson inwardly smiled that so many learned people felt his work was authentic, Dana was horrified. He personally contacted every single newspaper and publication he could, explaining the joke. He was not trying to perpetuate a hoax, but felt the ‘Almanack’ was so outrageous it would be recognized as a fake book.
For some reason, the newspapers were not only delighted to have been duped, but quickly published that they had been. Editorials began to include hilarious lineages of Jared Bean, while two readers argued back and forth in letters on whether Bean had been married or not.
It remains curious why reviewers didn’t recognize it as farce, and why some felt that treating library patrons as “donkeys” was sound advice. “We should be sorry to have missed Jared Bean” remains one of the oddest comments a book reviewer has ever made.
Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library