The fall of 1850 brought a hopeful beginning for the people of Utah. Congress created the new Territory of Utah on September 9; one of its next acts was to appoint John M. Bernhisel as Utah’s agent to assemble a territorial library, furnishing him $5,000 for the project.
We could not have had a better agent. Bernhisel, Utah’s non-voting delegate to Congress, accepted the assignment with a sense of mission. “I was fully persuaded,” he wrote, “that the library would not only exert a powerful influence on the present and rising generation, but perhaps on millions yet unborn.”
Determined to do the most with his generous but limited funds, Bernhisel appealed for donations of materials in a printed circular mailed to governors, editors, publishers, authors, and every learned society he could identify. Congressman George Briggs of New York contributed his franking privileges to save Bernhisel the cost of postage.
The response of a philanthropic nation overwhelmed Bernhisel. Books, maps, and complimentary newspaper subscriptions arrived with every mail. The works were “useful, and many of them rare and valuable, and could not have been procured from any other source at any price,” he recorded. Feeling obliged to handwrite a personal letter of thanks for every gift, he worked “from early morn until I retired to my couch at night. It was the busiest winter of my whole life.”
Generous as they were, the gifts were haphazard and unbalanced, and Bernhisel was determined to assemble a comprehensive library of the best and most useful works of science, literature, law, and technology. He struggled to compile a “wish list,” writing for advice to noted scholars and librarians, many of whom obliged him with recommendations. He ransacked bookstores and public libraries, and combed through the catalogs of booksellers in New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia.
When his list was complete, Bernhisel took it to a prominent bookseller and asked that the lowest possible prices be indicated for each item. Then he took his list to friends in Washington, who remarked that the prices quoted were remarkably low, less than half that recently paid by the governor of Minnesota who had supervised the assembly of his own new territorial library. President Millard Fillmore asked Bernhisel to show his list to Alexander Stuart, Secretary of the Interior; impressed by the balance and variety of Bernhisel’s choices, Stuart had the list copied as a model for future libraries assembled with federal funds.
Yet Bernhisel felt he could do still better. He began to call on publishers and booksellers in person, and writing to those he could not visit. As a result, “many of the booksellers both in New York and Philadelphia furnished me their own publications at about the cost, or perhaps a little more, of paper, printing, and binding.” Other desired volumes were presented freely, or for as low as one-third the “remarkably low” price previously quoted.
Dissatisfied with the quality of the bindings – chiefly muslin – Bernhisel determined that the volumes most apt to be heavily used must be rebound in sturdy boards and leather. This required yet another round of personal visits until he located a binder who would do the best work at the lowest rates. Then the persuasive Bernhisel called upon the owners of stationery companies until he had collected paper enough to write out a detailed catalog of his purchases. Finally, after five months of continuous labor, Bernhisel boxed his library for shipment across the Plains in the summer of 1851.
[See here for the first section of the Utah Territorial Library catalog; be sure to read the comments there to learn about the further plans of Keepapitchinin’s readers to develop the catalog as an online resource.]