“A gentleman and a scholar”—this phrase always comes to mind when I think of fellow collector Don Baldwin although he would surely disavow both terms in his eminently modest way. I first “met” Don in 2009 when he sent a comment about an article on bookmarks I had written for the “On Marking Books” column at the web site BiblioBuffet. He offered to send an example from his collection of a bookmark that was similar to those I had written about, and he also complimented me and editor Lauren Roberts for our contributions to bookmark lore. That little exchange was so typical of Don: always generous with his knowledge, his collection, and his compliments.
Christmas Elf bookmark from the collection of Don Baldwin
As readers of this website know, there are not many of us bookmark collectors, and even in the United States, I know of a dozen at most, so it was thrilling to find a fellow enthusiast. Little did I know that he was probably the most experienced collector among us, as well as one of the most ardent. His daughter, Tama Baldwin, later described him as an inveterate collector who “spent over a half a century collecting, and he collected broadly as well across many types and many centuries.” At the time, Lauren and I, and another collector in Santa Barbara, CA, Alan Irwin, began planning a virtual convention for bookmark collectors, so we asked Don if he would like to participate. His presentation was marvelous and that’s when I realized what a treasure he was for all bookmark collectors.
During the next couple of years after the virtual convention, Don found other ways to showcase his collection and share his knowledge. He was thrilled to have a display at the Iowa City Public Library in 2011. Alas, the newspaper article with photographs is no longer available although there is still a brief mention of the exhibit from the library’s site.
Don also worked on photographing and putting his collection online on Flickr as well as writing a blog. He would write to me every so often about something he noticed in one of my articles and he would always rather sheepishly say that he was still learning how to make better photographs or write more interesting articles. He was well into his 80s by then, so the fact that he was learning all of this technology was impressive, and he really did a great job in spite of his self criticism. His Flickr pages are still visible although it appears that his blog has been removed.
Bookmarks from the collection of Don Baldwin
Don’s generosity was so natural and impressive, especially in this day and age. He would often send me images of bookmarks related to my columns, and once he asked if I would like to have some articles he had collected. That offer resulted in a large envelope of hard-to-find articles from antiques and crafts publications along with some back issues to fill in the few bookmark periodicals that exist. For one column, I interviewed a young woman who was just starting to collect who mentioned she liked bookstore bookmarks, especially those from chain bookstores. Don volunteered to send her a large sample from his collection. Don took great pleasure in paying it forward to other collectors.
I didn’t hear from Don for a while and then in December, 2013, I got a message from his daughter Tama telling me that he had passed away in October of that year. She wanted to know if Lauren and I could help her find a home for his wonderful collection. Indeed, he continued collecting up until his very last days with her helping him review eBay listings while he was in the hospital. She said that Don wanted to keep the collection together and donate it to a library or museum that would be interested in displaying it. As she put it:
“The point I am making is that I am motivated in large part because he cared very dearly about the collection and wished very much for it to have a home where others might come to enjoy it. The show he had at the public library really pleased a lot of people - many of whom have no idea about the history of the bookmark as a physical object. My husband and I also attended a talk he gave on the history of the bookmark and it was nothing less than a marvel to listen to him talk - he helped people fall in love with what he loved.”
Stitched Victorian bookmarks from the collection of Don Baldwin
I had done a little research and thinking about what to do with my own collection, so we exchanged information, and I checked with several colleagues to see where there might be interest—the Smithsonian, New York Public Library, University of Virginia, San Francisco Public Library. Sometimes the largest libraries are the least likely to want this type of collection, although they are often the first ones approached on the assumption that bigger libraries will be preferable. Previously, I had tried to find any library that seemed to have a special interest in bookmarks or even other printed ephemera but had not found too many likely candidates. Then by coincidence, I met a young woman at a library conference who was an archivist at the University of Iowa in Iowa City where Don lived. I mentioned this situation to her and she immediately lit up with interest. I put her in touch with Tama, but then didn’t hear anything further. To help Tama with her pursuit, I gave her a few suggestions that might be useful to others who are thinking of donating their collections.
A group of vintage metal bookmarks with short, open page clips, collection of Don Baldwin
Libraries will be more willing to consider collections that complement those they already have, but also if the collections are organized, stored in reasonably good conditions, and documented. The cost to them is in the processing. Usually they will create a "finding aid" which is a high level description of the collection and the collector. For important collections, they will go into more detail and describe the contents of each container. They must also put the collection into acid free boxes, sleeves, or binders, another expense. It's not required but they very much appreciate donations to cover at least some of these costs.
Much to my delight, I got a message from Tama on February 20, 2016 saying that she had donated the collection to the University of Iowa’s Special Collections. She said, “They are in the process of building a state of the art museum for displays and they say they will eventually exhibit Don's collection. They really wanted everything he collected and they wanted it in exactly the state it was in when he died, right down to his notes and correspondence.” I just checked and found they have already created a rudimentary finding aid or description of the collection : Don Baldwin Bookmark Collection guide. If they process it further, they will add more detail to this description.
Fortunately, Don’s passion, hard work, and generosity, as well as his superb collection, will live on, protected by a library and maybe one day joined by other bookmark collections. To learn more about Don’s characteristics as a gentleman a scholar, see this loving tribute to his life.