Let Us Now Praise Famous Dead Readers
The Personal Libraries Library (Portland’s most unusual literary collection) re-creates bygone bookshelves.
A few years ago, Abra Ancliffe became fascinated by 19th-century astronomer Maria Mitchell. So fascinated, she began buying copies of books Mitchell once owned.
The result: the Personal Libraries Library, headquartered in Ancliffe’s Northeast Portland home. Ancliffe, a printmaker, recreates the collections of Mitchell, sculptor Robert Smithson, poet Anne Spencer, novelist Italo Calvino, and short-story master (and, yes, librarian) Jorge Luis Borges.
She lends books to members—more than 50, who pay about $20 a year—with two interns’ help.
The PLL’s weathered hardwood floor creaks as Ancliffe surveys her shelves. “I’ll never be completely finished,” she says. Besides tracking down relevant books, she handles bookbinding and preservation duties on the collection. Some volumes date back to the 18th century, since Ancliffe attempts to acquire the same editions her subjects owned. “If I’m really exploring the books of these people,” she says, “then that materiality matters. It changes the reading of the book.”