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Collections offer a glimpse into the past
By Sammi King | Daily Herald Columnist

George Scheetz, director of the Batavia Public Library, collects "Topper" books by Thorne Smith.


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Published: 9/3/2010 12:02 AM

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The word "collection" conjures up a variety of images from the familiar basket passed at a Sunday service to the daily pickup by the local trash hauler.

For some the need to collect can be disastrous and end in hoarding. For others it is an art form - a love of specific items and a joy in finding the perfect one to complete or enhance the collection.

I had the opportunity to judge collections at the county fair a few years back and I was amazed at the variety of items that children and adults collect. I was also impressed with the care that the collectors took in displaying their collection.

There were beautiful handmade quilts accented with antique porcelain dishes. Tinware was displayed in front of a red barn siding back drop. Tea cups of all shapes and sizes sat atop an antique lace tablecloth.

In the children's division, youngsters displayed turtles in dioramas, toys with original boxes, Pokemon figures and cards in large quantities. I often wondered about those who shared their collections, especially the youngsters.

"We have some collectors as young as three and four years old," said Joanne Zillman, Batavia Public Library's director of children's services.

Young Batavia Library patrons have the opportunity to share their collections by displaying them in the display cases at the library.

"In the old library, we had a five-year waiting time from when the kids signed up to when they were able to display their collection," said Zillman. "With our new case the waiting time is cut to two years."

And I thought waiting seven years for "Bozo's Circus" tickets was tough.

Through a generous donation from the John Elam family, the library was able to have a new case built. Ken Heinz built the case and made four separate display areas to allow more displays at one time. If a child wants to change the collection from the original signup, that's allowed.

Sometimes there are mixed reactions from the younger kids.

"Some are so proud and they bring in family members to see it and they have their pictures taken next to the display," said Zillman.

Others have a difficult time leaving the collection.

"We had one little boy who had a collection of stuffed animals," she added. "He was very excited to set up the display but when he realized that he would have to leave it at the library for a month, he just couldn't do it. He ended up taking it down and taking it home with him."

According to Zillman, the library has showcased a variety of collections from key chains to rocks, Legos to Star Wars characters.

Upstairs at the library, Director George Scheetz is happy to share his love of collecting, which includes everything from ViewMasters to tennis books.

However, his most prized collection features books from favorite author, Thorne Smith, a novelist from the 1920s, who was famous for the "Topper" series.

"I became interested in Thorne Smith when I worked at the library in Peoria," said Scheetz. "His books weren't easy to find, so I began searching used book stores and flea markets for them."

With the help of the Internet, Scheetz has been able to locate all of the books published in the United States as well as Smith books that have been published in other languages.

"I have books translated in Swedish, Danish, Italian, Croatian, Egyptian, Slovakian; you name it," he added. "I can't read them but it is interesting to me how the different foreign publishers handle the illustrations and art."

Scheetz admits that collecting is more about the hunt, than the actual acquisition.

"I love the fun of the search and connecting with others who share your interest," he said.

Marilyn Kasules agrees that collecting is all about the hunt and she is thrilled when someone shares a find with her.

"A friend recently gave me a book she found at a flea market," said Kasules. "I was so happy that she thought of me."

Kasules began collecting hymnals and common prayer books when she was 12 years old.

"My uncle was thinking of buying a farmhouse and I tagged along with him," she said. "The owner of the house had a piano with an old paperbound hymnal placed on it. I had been playing piano for about four years so I sat down and played some hymns from this old hymn book. When I was finished, the owner of the house gave it to me."

That first hymn book, the Official Hymn Book of the Episcopal Methodist-South Church, was the first in a collection of over 100 books. Included in Kasules's collection are hymnals that feature the slave scale, or all black notes as well as the shaped-note music of the late 1800s.

One of her most unique hymnals is the Radio Hymnal from station KFWF in Shenandoah, Iowa. The radio show that played hymns was sponsored by the Henry Field's Seed Company.

Kasules doesn't just collect the hymnals, she uses them playing favorite hymns from time to time.

"Looking through these hymnals is a lot like reading old newspapers," she said. "Church music has changed so much over the years. I can look at four bars of any hymn and tell you within 50 years when it was written."

Kasules, an accomplished pianist and organist, had an organ teacher who made her sing the hymns before she learned to play them.

"She wanted me to understand the phrasing and the importance of the words," she added.

Some of the hymns from the old hymnals are perfect for singing without accompaniment.

"I call them my dishwashing hymns," she added. "I stand at the sink and sing them."

Collecting can be a lifelong hobby. From the thrill of the hunt to the excitement of the find, it's a hobby that involves research and respect for treasures of the past and present.