Preserving Hobby History
Dive into the storied archives of the Benjamin K. Edwards Collection at the Library of Congress with Sara Duke, curator of Popular and Applied Graphic Art. Duke breaks down the Library of Congress’ collection, along with how and why our nation’s library preserves trading cards. According to Duke, cards illustrate more than just the statistics of the players they portray – they echo the culture of their eras, reflecting shifts in design, technology, advertising, and fandom. Get ready for another exciting installment of one of Collector Stories.
Please introduce yourself.
My name is Sara Duke, and I am the curator of popular and Applied Graphic Art in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.
When you say graphic arts, are we talking about baseball cards?
Absolutely. One of the fun parts of my job is collecting baseball cards.
So, what is the Benjamin K. Edwards Collection?
One of the key parts of our baseball card collection is the Benjamin K. Edwards collection. It’s the linchpin of our Prints and Photographs Division collection. It’s what put us on the map. But it’s more than baseball cards. Baseball forms about 2000 cards of the 10,000 cards in the collection. Benjamin K. Edwards was a businessman originally from Chicago, and he ended up in California. Remember, Edwards lived in a pre-internet, pre-eBay world. He wrote letters to collectors of his day, including Jefferson Burdick, and painstakingly created lists for different series of cards and tracked them down. It was the thrill of the hunt.
Why did the Library of Congress want to acquire this collection?
The Library of Congress probably collected the collection because [famous American poet] Carl Sandburg gave it to the library. We don’t know if Carl Sandburg was a big baseball card or trading card collector himself. His daughter worked in the manuscript division here, and that’s probably why he chose the Library of Congress.
Why did the Library of Congress digitize the baseball cards in the Edwards Collection?
We chose to digitize the baseball cards because that’s the popular element that people know the most. Also, baseball has such a statistical and rich history. People document players, people track which teams they play for in a way that doesn’t happen for the other types of trading cards in the collection – fish, flags of the world, famous actresses, and the like.
What do baseball cards, specifically those in the Edwards Collection, tell us about American Culture?
Anytime you acquire a collection of cards, you must ask: Who appears on the card? How was the card marketed? Is there advertising on the back? The answers to these questions help to locate the card and the reason for the card’s existence in a particular historical moment. Just as important as who or what is pictured on the card, how the card was produced – the printing process – is just as important. For example, without the development of the chromolithograph, the rise of baseball cards would not have happened.
How could someone donate a collection to the Library of Congress?
We often receive offers from collectors. For example, the brother of somebody who had assiduously collected baseball cards from 1974 until 2019 contacted us and asked if we’d be interested in the collection. I had been asking for sets of cards since 2005, and I had only ever received a set from 1992. So when the brother reached out with the opportunity to take in 50 years of sets of cards in one group, I said yes. All told, we now have this magnificent collection of 46,000 baseball cards from 1974 to 2019.
Last but not least, Do you have a favorite card?
I really love the die-cut cards in the Benjamin K. Edwards collection because they’re so much fun. I also love the golf cards, because they’re a lot of fun, too. But you know, you can’t love just one thing because it’s like having a favorite child.