Thursday, July 8, 2010

Building a Civil War Library

My wife keeps a watchful eye on me because she is convinced that I am trying to amass a library in our own home.  Of course, she is not far off the mark.  I've always loved books and have collected hundreds of them over the years, some of which still reside in my parents' basement.  A good third or more of the collection consists of books on the Civil War era.  More recently, I have started purchasing antique books on the Civil War and World War I, another of my interests.  After many years of collecting, I'd like to share some insights and tips for the bibliophiles out there who are building their own Civil War libraries.

My Ground Rules

At this point in my collection, I have become a more selective purchaser of Civil War books.  I try to get well-reviewed books by reputable authors and experts.  Not all books are reviewed, and not all authors are known, so if the book covers a more obscure topic that interests me, I may waive this rule.  Case in point: a Civil War history of Fairfax County that I bought in Vienna, Virginia.

I also promise myself that the book is one that I will read cover-to-cover or one that will serve as a valuable tool for historical research.  Too many times in the past I would buy a book, just to let it collect dust on the bookshelf.  I want to make sure I also learn something from my books in the process of collecting them.  

Bargains are worth looking for and are out there.  I often comparison shop to get the best price.  The proliferation of on-line sources makes this a lot easier. 

Finding the Right Books

There are some Civil War books that just won't lead you astray.  Anything by Foote, Catton, Wert, or McPherson, for example, is likely to be worth the time.  But not every author has such instant name recognition and fame, so I need to turn elsewhere in my search for a new purchase.  I learn about some Civil War books by reading blog postings on the topic.  Bloggers often review recently published works and bring their expertise and insights to their assessment of a book. One of the best out there is Civil War Books and Authors, a blog dedicated almost exclusively to reviewing recent Civil War publications.  Another good source is the on-line version of Louisiana State University's Civil War Book Review.  I also do searches on for books on particular topics and go through the reader reviews for those books that appear interesting.  The literacy of some reviewers may raise eyebrows.  That being said, some reviews are articulate and insightful, and if a large percentage of reviewers award a book three, four, or five stars, I am likely to give it a chance.  Sometimes I simply gamble with a book that I find while browsing at a store or on-line.  If I am way off the mark, I can possibly trade it in for credit at a used book store. 

Where to Buy Books?

Big chain booksellers (brick-and-mortar):
The big retailers like Borders and Barnes & Noble generally have a limited and less diverse selection compared to Internet retailers.  I sometimes find a book on and then check out the physical copy at a big retailer if I can find it there.  Given that the big retailers tend to be more expensive than on-line sellers, I don't usually buy books at chain stores, unless I absolutely can't wait for the mail.

On-line retailers:
On-line retailers offer a wide array of Civil War books at competitive prices.  I have found to have a relatively diverse selection of books on many different topics, including local Civil War history, uniforms, and weapons. Many books are sold by individual sellers who market through Amazon.  eBay has a similar marketplace feature, although the selection can be spotty.  On both sites, new books or used books in like-new condition can be purchased at a steep discount to the big brick-and-mortar chains, even after paying shipping and handling.  Both sites include seller ratings based on purchaser reviews.  These ratings help to ensure quality control and, based on my experience, are an accurate indicator of a seller's honesty and reliability.

Antique book sellers on the Internet:
I have found many interesting antique books on eBay.  Some I bought without bidding, while others I won through auction.  Some of my purchases include memoirs by Grant (1885-86) and McClellan (1887). One has to accept a certain amount of risk in buying an antique book on the Internet.  I rely on the pictures and the description, as well as the seller rating.  If there are no pictures, or if the description is weak or the seller unreliable, I won't consider buying it.  I still would rather handle the book and examine it, but it would take innumerable trips across the country to find what I have been able to find on eBay.  Overall, I feel that I have gotten antique books, in good or near fine condition, for a fair price.  Only once do I consider to have been sold a dud. For more information on collecting antique books, check here and here.

Other sites offering old and rare books include Alibris and

Used book stores and book sales:
Despite the ease of on-line shopping, nothing beats browsing the wooden shelves at an independent used bookstore, the smell of ancient paper filling the air.  One of my favorites is The Old Book Company of McLean, which has an excellent selection of Civil War classics, as well as lesser known works, from the last several decades.  I have purchased many a book here, at very reasonable prices, including a copy of Catton's Army of the Potomac trilogy from the early 1960s.  They also offer some interesting rare and antique books, including a copy of The United States Secret Service in the Late War from the 1880s.

Some non-profit organizations sponsor used book sales for fundraising purposes.  These can be hit-or-miss, but I have sometimes discovered hidden treasures at such sales.  One of my best finds occurred last year at the book sale of the American Association of University Women in McLean, where I bought an 1864 copy of General Orders Affecting the Union Volunteer Force for only fifty dollars.  (Attention D.C. area readers, the association will be sponsoring the used book sale again this year.)

It is hard for an old-school bibliophile like me to pay money for e-books.  I don't have a Kindle, and don't plan on getting one.  I like to hold a book in my hand, measure progress by turning the pages, and store it on the book shelf when finished.  A book collection is as much about the beauty of the physical published work as it is about the content.   E-books are sometimes invaluable for doing research.  The availability of hard-to-find primary and secondary sources on Google Books has saved me numerous trips to libraries or archives.   For purposes of collecting, however, I'll stick to hard copies!

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