In 1983, Robert Corbett, a philosophy professor at Webster University, and his wife, Jane, visited Haiti for the first time to do service work. By 2007, he had amassed a collection of 2600 books and 5000 journal articles on Haiti.
He is currently in the process of selling the collection in its entirety.
I asked Bob to share with Book Patrol readers his thoughts about the collection in general, Haiti, and his book collecting strategy.
BP: What made you decide to start the collection?
I started the library in 1983 after the first visit to Haiti (I've been back more than 50 times). But, I am an academic, a joyously retired professor. When I came home from that first visit I was overwhelmed with the poverty of Haiti and wondered:
WHY IS HAITI SO POOR? (title of the second article I ever published on Haiti). So, I went to my university library: almost nothing. To Washington University, St. Louis University, and University of Missouri - St. Louis, all much larger libraries and ended up finding only thirty-six books on Haiti.
I was astonished and appalled.
So I started my library. In those days AB Bookman was the main source, a monthly. I ran ads: Wanted books on or about Haiti. Just that. Month after month. And my library was started.
I was, within a year, publishing a quarterly magazine on Haiti to help fund the charity my wife and I founded [People To People, the Haitian Children's Project] to house our Haiti work. I got many many "quotes" as those little post cards were called in those pre-internet days, and I decided to make dealers happy with me and I purchased them all, often 10-20 copies of the same book, and then offered them to others on my magazine's mailing list for about a $5.00 mark up (which often meant a 50% mark up, books weren't what they are now!!!!
Always I kept the best copy of each book for my library. I had some beauties.
Later, I switched my buying to the internet.
By 2007 my library had reached some 2600 books and 5000 journal articles, perhaps one of the largest personal libraries every assembled on Haiti, if not the largest [BP: it is]. 90+% of the books were in English, though I had volumes in French, Creole, Spanish and German and one or two in yet other languages, usually donated by their authors.
BP: What made you decide to sell it?
In 2007, now long since retired, I decided my days of doing research and publishing on Haiti were over. Also, I realized that my kids had little interest in the library, even though they have a great interest in Haiti, and that were I to die the books would be given to some local book fair.
I decided to sell the library.
Many have sold. One person purchased the whole of the journal articles. The Library of Congress purchased a large bunch and all seventy-seven of my videos and movies. And so on. Even a library in Switzerland purchased 200 volumes and on and on.
Yet I still have some 600 books on the shelves, and because my web page has had thousands of hits in this crisis period, I've had a dozen or so orders, from one to thirty-three books, in the past few days.
BP: With such an impressive collection of rarities did you have any sort of arrangement for scholars to access the collection?
I never loaned books out. I learned as a professor of philosophy that my most beloved students would borrow books and never return them. So, never once did I loan a book out. But, I had many books no one else had (which is what the Library of Congress was after). In those years, scholars would come to St. Louis, stay in a near-by hotel (in the earliest days in my house, but that got old fast), and use my library.
I never let a book out of the house. They would often want to copy this or that and wanted to run out to a Kinkos or some copy place. I would explain my no-book-out-the-door policy, tell them I had a scanner and they could scan the pages in question and e-mail them to themselves.
BP: Collection highlights and/o rbest-sellers from the extra copies?
The White King of La Gonave. Hugh Cave's many books on Haiti, including his non-fiction Haiti: High Road To Adventure, and his novel The Cross on the Drum. Then Courlander's children's book, A Piece of Fire and Other Stories - oh my, I just sold my FINAL copy and I'll be over the years I sold 100 copies of that one. And so many more. Some real barnburners.
The White King of La Gonave by Faustin Wirkus and Dudley Taney.
Garden City: Doubleday, Duran & Co., 1931.
Garden City: Doubleday, Duran & Co., 1931.
Now, I had a great advantage. I was publishing a quarterly magazine on Haiti that had 2500 subscribers, and they were hungry to read about Haiti. That's why I purchased every copy of everything I could get my hands on, in addition to get my name out there as a reliable buyer of Haiti books.
I had lots of fun those days. It turns out that in the end my library paid for itself. I put $2000 of my own money into an account in 1983 and never added another penny to it, ending up with my 2600 books and 5000 journal articles and still about $2000 in the book account.
BP: Any used or rare bookseller who has not had a copy of Voodoo Fire in Haiti pass through their hands cannot call themselves a book dealer; it's a rite of passage. It’s a common book with a high weirdness factor. Your thoughts on this rotten fish bound in cloth?
Ah, the HIDEOUS book by Loederer. [LOEDERER, Richard A. Voodoo Fire in Haiti. Translated By Desmond Ivo Vesey, with Illustrations By the Author. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Company,1935. This is the true first edition in English, not to be confused with the Literary Guild book club edition of the same year]. Loathe it! Good grief, the Loederer book sold like crazy and it is simply AWFUL!!!!!!!
By the way, check out my web page. Take a look at my Haiti book review page and notes pages. You will see I didn't just collect them.
BP: Do you have any plans to return to Haiti and assist with the aid effort?
No, I'm here in St. Louis. I have no useful skills for Haiti at least IN Haiti. I'm much more useful here running my e-mail list which is one of the key tools for sharing information now.
BP: I presume that the proceeds for the sale will help smooth your retirement?
Yeah. Sale was for me. All those many many years I never put any money away, always into the books. It was my own view of my retirement account since I knew I would some day stop my scholarly writing about Haiti.
Nonetheless, a significant amount has ended up in Haiti work since I generously have helped my former wife and kids to keep up their work in Haiti.
An updated list of Bob Corbett's collection of books on Haiti can be found here.