Prize-Winning Disaster Book Collection

Here is some random personal news. My collection of (mostly) antiquarian disaster books received an honorable mention in the Honey & Wax book collection contest! 

I say this is random because I did not intend to start a book collection nor did I even really realize that you could win a prize for what my friends and family call book hoarding. Anyway, I am SUPER excited about this because the only thing I love more than disaster books is getting a platform to talk about disaster books. 

You can read about my collection and the one that won at The Paris Review. I don't think they'll be using it for anything so it should be okay that I've included the essay I wrote for my submission below if you're interested in reading more about my collection. 


Safeguarding the History of Disasters

A few years ago, I found myself wandering the aisles of a used bookstore in Fargo, North Dakota searching for some good deals on disaster and climate change books. As a graduate student, I was always looking for ways to save money when buying the books I needed for my career as a disasterologist. Few bookstores have a dedicated disaster section, instead, they are scattered throughout history sections, science and nature, sociology, psychology, and regional sections. As I searched through the usual spots in this particular bookstore I found myself in the rare books section, an area I had never before looked though. After all, in disaster management, we read the most current books, not the oldest. On this particular day, I uncovered a copy of the Story of the Great Flood and Cyclone Disaster from 1913, a book that would send me down a path of collecting non-fiction disaster books from the late 19th and early 20th century.

In the discipline of emergency management, disaster history tends to start after 1920. Emergency management students are taught that the field began with a dissertation on the Halifax explosion, written in 1920, by a man named Samuel Prince. As a student, I took this at face value because it was touted by the top professors in our field and written at the start of every textbook. When I went home to read the Story of the Great Flood and Cyclone Disaster I realized that though Prince may have been the first to write a dissertation on disaster response, he was not the first to record a systematic account of disaster response. This realization began my quest to uncover more of these forgotten disaster accounts.

And uncover them, I have. Everywhere I go I dig into used bookstores – John K. King in Detroit, The Strand in New York City, McKay in Knoxville, Maple Street in New Orleans, B.D.S Books in Fargo, and Powell’s in Portland. Over the past few years, I have found dozens of similar texts that recount the disasters of the late 1800s and early 1900s. I’ve always collected books but I did not mean to become a book collector. Recently, I have become more intentional in my collecting. I began keeping a catalog of the books I have to avoid purchasing duplicates. I did some googling to identify the obvious titles I was missing. I check for smaller used bookstores online in cities I know I’ll be in, especially if that city is known for a famous disaster.

It is not just that disaster responses from the past are interesting, there is a real utility here. What can a faded tale of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake tell us about the future of the communities along the New Madrid fault in the Midwest? Actually, quite a lot. The reactions of people following the 1871 Chicago Fire mirror the reactions of people during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Complaints about politicians, businesses and the elite in 1871 could be repeated word for word today; as could the accounts of neighbors helping neighbors and donations being sent from hundreds of miles away. Considering the advances in technology and the ease of which we can now share information, it is actually quite remarkable how little our approach to disaster management has changed over 150 years. The accounts in these books are evidence of that.

This information is especially important in the context of climate change. I think a lot about the already changing climate, only to be made more unpredictable in the near future, and wonder if the answers for how to adapt and respond to disasters as consequences of climate change are tucked away inside these hundred-year-old books, lying forgotten under a box in the corner of a used bookstore in Fargo, North Dakota. At the least, they are beautiful accounts written in moments of devastation and hope. They capture the human spirit of the past while demonstrating that though it seems the world around us has changed, us; the human condition has remained remarkably steady.

When I go out to the scene of a disaster to interview people, one of my primary concerns is getting to them before their memories are re-written or influenced by other people. I want their honest, initial recounting of what has happened. Misremembering or forgetting the facts of an event, though unintentional, leads to inaccurate accountings of disasters. When we read a book written in 2005 about the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 we are opening up the possibilities of our modern perspectives influencing our perception of that event. It is easy to discount the events of the past when we are removed from them. We have allowed time to erode the memories of what happened. When writing these books, it’s not only about telling the story but detailing the response and recovery so that we can learn to better manage events in the future. That we can read an account of a disaster written when that disaster happened, that is where we can find the most accurate accounting of what actually happened.

This collection raises so many questions for me – who were the authors of these books? Their names do not come up in google searches and they typically only have a short bio, if that. Were they journalists? Researchers? Survivors? Writers? How many people read these books? Who was their audience? The survivors of the event? People from across the country who wanted an account of what had occurred? These were written before video was widespread. Was this the equivalent of a Spike Lee Documentary? Did politicians read them? Did a president ever read one? Did they influence policy? How accurate are these accounts? How many people did the author interview? Were they there when the disaster happened? How soon after did they arrive? How reliable were these witnesses? How much of their narratives were informed by their preconceived notions of disasters? Did these writers write about more than one disaster?

If I, as one of the few who studies disasters, does not find and care for these books, who will? Collecting, for me, is less about having a personal collection and more about safeguarding the contents of these books. It does not seem that many others are collecting these specific texts. 

I do not care much about book jackets and pristine pages. I am actually pleased to see markings on the pages because it means someone read the book. I have spent no more than $30 on each book. Expensive books are inaccessible. The contents of these books need to be read. We do not want the stories of how people have survived disasters to be a secret. We want that information to be shared. In fact, that is my primary motivation for entering this contest, it is an opportunity to share with others that these books exist.