On retirement: an interview with John Mustain

April 17, 2019
David A Jordan
John Mustain

Curator of Rare Books and Classics John Mustain’s work at Stanford Libraries spans the years 1978-2019.  To put into perspective his lasting influence on the collections and his beneficial impact on generations of scholars, simply consider the fact that his tenure coincides with fully forty percent of the Green Library Centennial period that we are celebrating this year.  In this interview, John looks back on his career and ahead to his retirement.  Like many of us who are fortunate to work at Stanford Libraries, his retirement plans include reading extensively and working with rare books and manuscripts.

What path did you take to become rare books curator?

My first job at Stanford Libraries, a five-month term position back in 1978, involved pulling every card relevant to each title being transferred (main entry card, added entries, subject entries, etc.) and leaving a blue handwritten card indicating that the title was being transferred into Rare Books.  Little did I realize then that I would someday work in Special Collections, which was formed later through consolidation of the separate divisions of Archives & Manuscripts, Rare Books, and parts of Technical Services. 

After graduate school, I secured another job here in 1980 and decided that I wanted to stay in librarianship. I went to UC Berkeley for my library degree, after which I took on a serials project here in 1983. In the 1990s, Barry Hinman and I were fellow rare book cataloguers, having shared the great good fortune of the training and expertise provided by Rita Lunnon, now in Digital Library Systems and Services.  In the late 90s, we were transferred from the Catalogue Department to Special Collections. I feel very fortunate today in feeling at home in both the Technical Services side and Curatorial side of the organization.  I can still remember the most arcane subject heading I ever assigned: “Hypostatic Union—Early works to 1800.” Those years of cataloguing and my technical services experience working with every online system the library had ever used (BALLOTS, RLIN1, RLIN2, NOTIS, and WorkFlows) made for a smooth transition, in the late 1990s, to curating duties.

As rare books curator, what was your most notable manuscript acquisition?

Acquisitions need not be paged and used immediately after ordering to be great and worthwhile, but it is a huge reward when they are.  The 13th-century Bible that we acquired from the late Barney Rosenthal is certainly high on my list of favorite acquisitions, and it was used right away and dozens of times since.  The acquisition was made even more savory in that it involved my working closely with Christopher de Hamel, who in his days at Sotheby’s had sold this Bible not once but twice at auction.  His advice was very welcome; any opportunity to work with Christopher is a great thing for a librarian. 

 Books with manuscript marginalia have become increasingly important to our faculty; acquiring them has been very rewarding.  Just recently I have acquired a  collection of Renaissance editions of Aristotle, a 1496 edition of Terence’s comedies, and a 1537 edition of Caesar, all with extensive contemporary scholarly marginalia; the Caesar is further distinguished in that we know who the annotator is and that he ordered the book bound, and a splendid (though not ostentatious) binding it is.  A 1513 edition of Calepino’s Latin dictionary is another favorite acquisition, as it is not only heavily annotated but boasts two identifiable early owners’ signatures and is in a contemporary binding by the Cambridge binder Nicholas Spierinck.

Which grand printed and illustrated works are among your memorable acquisitions?

Humphry Repton’s Observations on Landscape Gardening (1803), with its movable overlays, is another favorite, as are Rudolf Ackermann’s volumes on Oxford and Cambridge, two examples of the great illustrated books that came from this publisher.  This sort of title fairly begs to be acquired in a fine copy, and ours are: beautiful, wide-margined, thick-paper glories, both from the remarkable Estelle Doheny library, each with her bookplate.  The absence of Baskerville’s famous Bible (Cambridge, 1763) was a glaring hole in our extensive Baskerville collection; acquiring a copy a few years back was a huge pleasure.  We already had the less stunning Birmingham edition of Baskerville’s Bible; the Cambridge edition was a great addition for us, and a must for a strong Baskerville collection.

The faculty’s interest in the great neo-Classical movement prompted me to look for and find several great titles, among which were Chandler’s Marmora Oxoniensia (1763), with its lavish plates, Wilkins’ The Antiquities of Magna Graecia (1807), and Les Ruines de Paestum (1798/1799), a magnificent copy of a great book.  I purchased this last at a book fair, and thanks only to the keen eye of Professor Caroline Winterer, who had spied it in a booth I had not yet visited: a stellar example of collaboration between faculty and librarians! 

Sandford’s coronation book for James II of England certainly ranks among my favorites, and it is a volume often used.  Our copy is especially nice: it includes a plate illustrating the coronation of William and Mary, who succeeded James II, he having been forced off the throne early in his reign.  The plate has no business being there; it was bound into this copy at some point by a former owner.  Other favorites include two or three titles from Edward Gibbon’s library, each title with his bookplate. 

Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopaedia (1728) is a mammoth two-volume effort, as important as it is large.  Acquiring it was especially satisfying as I had been asked by Professor John Bender to locate a copy for his and Professor Michael Marrinan’s research and eventual publication.  It was more difficult to find than I expected, but here again the fruitful collegiality between libraries and booksellers came into play: two of London’s finest booksellers came to visit, with a list of titles offered first to us, before going into a catalogue and thence to the public.  There was Chambers’ Cyclopedia, and we jumped at the chance to acquire it.  The title is very important in its own right: it is claimed that the Encyclopédie of Diderot et al. was originally conceived of as a French translation of Chambers’ massive work.  Our acquiring it was all the more gratifying to me as we had been asked to find a copy for Professors Bender and Marrinan. 

Very modest-looking acquisitions have likewise been gratifying.  By the Queene, a simple Elizabethan broadside, contains details of and responses to the traitorous behavior of the 2nd Earl of Essex and others to their queen; their perfidy is described in riveting detail.  The broadside announces that the gates to London will be closed and the traitors thereby trapped. The broadside presents wonderfully interesting bibliographical points, as it was issued in at least two different versions, textually.  Our copy was the inspiration for Professor Stephen Orgel’s History of the Book class to publish a pamphlet on this broadside, with notes on the players involved in the story. 

How has pedagogy in Special Collections evolved?

Our tradition here of opening up Special Collections to all of our students, and for encouraging faculty to work with our holdings has been wonderfully, wonderfully fulfilling.  When I began work in Special Collections in the late 1990s, we had only a handful of class sessions in our department, in part owing to the Loma Prieta earthquake, which reduced our available space for such things.  Nonetheless, some faculty worked with us to find a space in which to use Special Collections materials; Stephen Orgel taught his Great Books of the Renaissance class regularly, and we always found a classroom.  The word got out, and by the early 2000s, we were hosting more than 100 sessions in Special Collections each year (and the numbers are higher yet now).  This was a great step forward. 

Many faculty members approached us and were very appreciative; they did great things, exposing those students to our holdings.  Graduate students as well added to the tradition, often bringing in their discussion section students for a look at selected items.  The Program in Writing and Rhetoric and the Introduction to Humanities sequence would at times schedule multiple sessions with us, as many as fourteen separate sessions for students in a single large lecture course.  Working closely with students in the numerous book history courses offered over these many years has been especially enjoyable, and faculty have been energetic in offering such classes.

How do Stanford’s lifelong learners use Special Collections?

Our Continuing Studies and Master of Liberal Arts students have been very welcome guests in Special Collections, where we have accommodated their evening and weekend class schedules and made materials available for their thesis research.  A great many faculty have brought classes for a single session.  Linda Paulson brings MLA students annually for a look at some of the types of things we hold, each linked in some way to her class syllabus.  Paleography was co-taught by George Brown and David Jordan, all classes being held in Special Collections, with great results for all concerned, and this course led to a three-quarter sequence on paleography, texts, and editing.  Bliss Carnochan taught an MLA seminar, Belief & Doubt in the British Enlightenment, that likewise met each week on an evening in Special Collections—it was tremendous.  I had the pleasure of teaching classes in Book History through Continuing Studies, and these all met in the evening, and featured hands-on opportunities for each student to look closely at a wide range of manuscript and printed materials.  

How does the library staff collaborate?

I have worked with some wonderful colleagues over the years, and they have tremendously enriched my time here, in a wide variety of ways.  I have seen remarkable efficiencies, astonishing organization skills, wonderful personal skills, and some exemplary managerial styles; perhaps most memorable of all, there has been a tremendous willingness to help, and a most welcome habit of volunteering to do so.  Collegiality is an easily overused term, I think—but when I think of the number of my colleagues who embody my idea of collegiality, I am a bit overwhelmed.  These helpful colleagues populate all the departments of the library, here in Special Collections, of course (have I ever been fortunate!), but all across this large library organization—Access Services, Technical Services, Conservation, Preservation, the Mail Room, Digital Services, and Human Resources.  Outside of the main library system, colleagues in Law, Lane, GSB, and Hoover come readily to mind.  

It is not just in work-related situations, whether the outcomes were successes or disappointments, that I have felt so fortunate in having the encouragement and perspective of colleagues—it is also in life events, sad and happy milestones, challenging times.  I am very grateful to have had colleagues who were interested and supportive in such life events.

How have you relied upon the bookselling community?

Dealers have been enormously significant to me over these past years.  They are, typically, deeply educated not only in bibliography but also in one or more subject disciplines as well—Classics, Philosophy, Literature, History, Graphic Arts, and others.  They have helped me with no end of things, including advices about acquisitions (e.g. “you don’t need this edition---you have the better one.”).  When dealers say such a thing I am reminded of the pleasure I have enjoyed with them: our relationships are commercial but not adversarial.  Many have given us first refusal on many items; others have routinely sent us copies of their catalogues electronically before the printed catalogues were sent out, thereby giving us the chance to have about whatever we wanted from the catalogue, as few others had yet seen it.  These are the wonderful, generous things that dealers have done for us; I am in their debt for a great deal. I still regard a dealer’s catalogue as a reference tool, and a very readable one at that.

How have donors and collectors strengthened Special Collections?

I enjoyed very much meeting donors and collectors over the years.  I never failed to learn something from a collector—a collector has the time, focus, and passion to be very thorough in researching a collection.  Donors have been wonderful, generous not only with materials but also in words, appreciating what we try to do here.  In many cases, donated collections have made a significant contribution to our holdings. The Donn Downing and Letitia Sanders Collection of Early Printed Leaves, the Charles J. Tanenbaum collection of books and manuscripts, and the Stephen Jay Gould collection of books and manuscripts are three of the largest and most significant donations that I had the pleasure of working with in my role as Curator of Rare Books.

The Fitger-Williams Fund, endowed by the late Hal Williams and his wife, Betty Jo, has been a special treasure for me, and a joy to manage. As alumni, both Class of 1948, this couple contributed in numerous ways to the university's and library's well-being; The Harold B. and Betty Jo Fitger Williams Room adjacent to the Rotunda in Green Library is named in their honor.  At first, they established a fund in the general field of Classics, visited the campus and Special Collections regularly, and enjoyed no end the examination of antiquarian editions while their son, Arnold Williams ’79, majored in Classics at Stanford.  After a few visits, they amended their endowment to focus primarily on antiquarian editions of Classical authors.  I especially enjoyed sending the annual narrative report to this wonderful family to tell them what I had acquired on the fund; my wife Kate and I have celebrated Betty Jo's birthday with all (but one) of her grandchildren, and exchanged wonderful letters, too.  The Williams met our first adopted beagle, Lily, and were much impressed.

Bliss and Brigitte Carnochan have been tireless supporters of and donors to the library.  They have donated or otherwise identified and funded specific titles that have enhanced our collections greatly, including, among others, massive amounts of manuscript material, a collection of nineteenth-century broadsides, a letter by Edward Gibbon, a splendid  copy of an eighteenth-century edition of Paradise Lost, an eighteenth-century  handwriting manual (engraved throughout rather than printed with movable type), and a remarkable collection of eighteenth-century orations in manuscript, delivered by students at the Kirkcaldy Burgh School, in Fife, Scotland, a school attended by Adam Smith and many other notables.  This sort of discerning philanthropy has been a huge boon to our collections, and most welcome.  These generous donations will benefit scholars for many years to come.

The creation of the David Rumsey Map Center, the gift of David and Abby Rumsey, has strengthened us incalculably in many ways.  Not only have our holdings in maps, atlases, and globes been enhanced enormously through this gift, the center itself is a marvel of technology.  The generous deposit of medieval miniatures by Bob and Kathy Burke has ushered in a sea change in terms of what we can do regarding medieval manuscripts, art, and music, and it is most, most welcome. I celebrate a great connection here, not only reveling in seeing these gorgeous miniatures, but also cheering the fact that this remarkable collection was born of a visit to the 1996 Antiquarian Book Fair in San Francisco. I have always found the San Francisco fair memorably rewarding to attend, and it has yielded dozens of important acquisitions for Stanford Libraries.

How are rare books used at Stanford? 

I am amazed at the many ways rare books and manuscripts are used here—class after class has benefited from seeing them.  Faculty and students alike have been grateful and inspired.  Having a vast number of titles laid out in our Barchas Room is only the start: the students must engage with the materials, or we have not succeeded much at all.  Not only Stanford students come: every year The Stanford Humanities Institute sessions bring high schoolers who savor our holdings with youthful passion and intellect and precocious research and technology skills. 

Exhibitions, too, play a large role in getting out the message as to our holdings.   I am a big fan of exhibitions that feature recent acquisitions, these demonstrating our focused efforts at building our collections.  I remember very fondly our hosting one of these many years back and Lynne Brindley (now Dame Lynne Brindley), then Head of the British Library, who was looking at our recent acquisitions in the display cases, remarked how energetic and savvy we had been in our acquisitions—this from the head of the British Library.  Memorable!

Which of the many exhibitions that you curated stand out as showcases of rare books?

“In Folio” was an exhibition of folios that had each been used in a class session here.  One of our greatest supporters, the late Frank Novak, told me he liked the “legends:” the write-ups created for each item. Frank thought these legends were worthy of a printed catalogue and he offered to fund a portion of its cost.  I was very touched, and his generosity led to our publishing the catalogue of that exhibition.  

“Monuments of Printing” was in fact two exhibitions, back to back, letting us feature Stanford’s deep holdings in the history of printing. In fact, we had more relevant material than would fit in the cases!  I was already a fan of the Estienne printing dynasty, and of Simon de Colines, a part of that dynasty, as well as Jean de Tournes, another great French printer, but this exhibition allowed me to see very clearly how truly memorable was the fine and great printing of the French Renaissance. 

The Monuments of Printing catalogue stands out on its own as a tribute to the many donors and curators who have made our collections strong.  Thanks to Exhibits Manager & Designer Becky Fischbach, it was a typographical triumph.  I am also grateful to Fred Schreiber for his kind and generous advice regarding so many titles from the French Renaissance that featured so centrally in the exhibition, and to Robert Bringhurst, who wrote a penetrating and wonderful introduction to the catalogue.  Reading Nicolas Barker’s generous review in The Book Collector certainly ranks as a highlight of my career.

How have faculty contributed to exhibitions of rare books?

“The American Enlightenment” exhibition, conceived of and authored by Professor Caroline Winterer, was a visual feast, including a wide, wide range of materials, from grand illustrated books to modest-looking but terrifically important pamphlets such as Paine’s Common Sense, along with manuscript materials aplenty.  What struck me so forcibly and pleasantly about this exhibition was the fact that a faculty member initiated and oversaw it entirely, and that we had enough material here at Stanford to put on a large exhibition on such an important topic. 

What does the future have in store for rare book studies at Stanford?

Antiquarian books and manuscripts are being used here more than ever before and I am optimistic that this will continue for a long time. To take just one example, the energy and presence of our faculty and grad students in the areas of medieval and early modern studies has never been keener: Professors Rowan Dorin, Paula Findlen, Marisa Galvez, Fiona Griffiths, Ivan Lupic, Bissera Pentcheva, Barbara Pitkin, Kathryn Starkey, and Elaine Treharne, among others, along with our superlative grad students, have helped to make this a great time for Special Collections.  I think that the creativity and innovativeness of all of these scholars, combined with the many strengths of our Public Services Staff, and the skills of our Digital Services Staff, see us poised on the brink of wonderful things here, new visions of scholarship, and creative ways to use Special Collections materials.  I use medieval and early modern studies as an example; this energy and these strengths are seen in all of our faculty and grad students, across all academic disciplines.  It is heady and encouraging: it seems that the sky is the limit.

What are your retirement plans?

Most of all, I look forward very much to spending more time with my wife, Kate, and our beagle, Callie, at our home in our favorite of all places, Menlo Park.  I will stay busy by planning a new front yard, attracting ever more wildlife to both front and back yards, scanning pictures and documents for our family archive, finding good volunteer opportunities, and continuing to donate platelets at the Stanford Blood Center.  We hope to travel, whether revisiting England, New England, and the beaches of Normandy or embarking to Spain, Italy, and the Phillipines, the latter at the kind invitation of a good friend and outstanding book and wine collector!  Road trips with the dog appeal, too: Carmel is a wonderful spot. 

I plan to return to Special Collections regularly for projects I never found time for when I was on staff: working with our Ashendene Press and Eric Gill materials, some 18th-century pamphlets which I think belonged to Edward Gibbon (but are not listed in the Geoffrey Keynes list of Gibbon’s library), and much more.  It will be a great pleasure to page some of the titles that I acquired over the years, to work closely with them, just for the pleasure of handling them and to enjoy time with them. The dealer’s description was sufficient, obviously, to have me order an item, but in many cases I never had the chance to work closely with the titles I acquired.  One of the greatest pleasures a curator can have, I think, is to pick up a volume, look at it closely, and say to oneself: “It’s even nicer than described.”  If I can continue to be helpful as a resource for faculty, former colleagues, and students interested in bibliography and our holdings, I would find that to be especially satisfying.

But first things first: I need to clean the garage.