American Numismatic Society Librarian David Hill published an article in the 2015 No. 3 issue of ANS Magazine about some of his
predecessors in that position. It seemed especially timely since we'd just discussed ANS Librarian William Weeks in recent
E-Sylum issues. Here's an excerpt from the article about the first professional (paid) ANS Librarian, A.H. Cooper-Prichard.
It is such a great honor to be the Librarian of the American Numismatic Society, and there is a special kinship I feel with those who
have come before me, an exclusive club of dedicated stewards who have assembled and cared for this astonishing collection for over a
century and a half. Alas, the list of such individuals I can commiserate with in person is quite short, as there have been only two
librarians preceding me in the last forty years: Frank Campbell, whose retirement in 2008 capped a career that spanned a third of the ANS’s
entire 150-year existence, and my immediate predecessor, Elizabeth Hahn Benge, who thankfully remains just an email away, ready to dispense
advice when I most need it.
I’m also, naturally, curious about those who came before us. Happily, not only do opportunities to explore such topics arise in the
course of my regular day-to-day business, but I have the great fortune to be surrounded by a unique set of historical records into which I
can dive to find the answers to my questions, though such exploration usually just uncovers more areas to investigate. Recently, I found
myself looking at the lives of several of the ANS librarians who were active at about the turn of the nineteenth- into the
twentieth-century. It was an era of big changes at the Society, as it moved into its new building at Audubon Terrace and brought in paid
professional staff to handle operations previously carried out by member volunteers.
The catalyst for much of this historical probing was a curious figure I have been intrigued by for a while, A.H. (Arthur Henry)
Cooper-Prichard, the Society’s first professional (or paid) librarian (1911-1912). Born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1874 and educated in
England, Cooper-Prichard’s work as a numismatist is well documented. In fact, he recounts most of it himself in a long and somewhat
rambling letter of application for “an official position” sent to ANS president Archer Huntington in 1907 (with which he included a
handbill from a school play in which he appeared in the role of a “happy husband”). Without a care for our modern notions of succinctness
when it comes to application letters, his goes on for six pages, skipping from one topic to the next. He tells of getting his start in
numismatics at the age of nine in the British Museum and subsequently building a collection of about 200 pieces (Greek and Roman mostly,
along with some English and French regal coins), eventually securing positions as a cataloger for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the
Provincial Museum of Nova Scotia, and the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences.
He claims to have written “two voluminous works” that were nearly ready for publication, one on the coinage of England and another on
primitive money, which, he says, “by the cruelest stroke of fate, burned in my trunk en route for Canada,” the flames also consuming his
numismatic library and coin scales. Though discouraged and despondent, he found his interest in such work refreshed through time spent
cataloging the extensive coin collection of Warren Demman Gookin (fig. 2). He had talked Gookin’s nephew out of donating the collection to
the Brooklyn Museum, where, he said, “the importance of coin collections and numismatic work was inadequately provided for” (the reason, he
added, he could no longer continue to work there), and so instead over two thousand of his Greek and Roman coins were given to the ANS.
Cooper-Prichard’s letter to Huntington came on the heels of this donation and he no doubt assumed it would be seen as a feather in his
cap by the president. Fully aware of Huntington’s collecting interests, he also let it slip casually that “oddly enough, I have always
taken a more than usual interest in all things pertaining to Spain and South America and the West Indies.” His letter is followed by copies
in his own hand of eight glowing testimonials from his former employers and schools. It was all to no avail, at least at that time. He was
told that “at the present time all official positions are filled” but that his application would be considered in the future. Four years
later he was hired as librarian.
With his letter of application, Cooper-Prichard included a small advertisement for his services identifying “foreign and ancient coins”
and cataloging using a “new and minute method.” This was his own invention whereby coins of any kind from any period could “be classified
upon a single page,” an approach he says was adopted at the Boston Museum—or at least “an imperfect development of it.” He boasted to
Huntington that “no other system even approaches this for its useful facilities.” (It is worth noting, however, that he felt it unnecessary
to apply this method to his catalog of the Gookin collection). Cooper-Prichard was quite proud of his system and published a description of
it in the Society’s American Journal of Numismatics. Not everyone was so enthusiastic. That year, the Society’s council members were
looking at ways to improve the journal. One of the suggestions was blunt: “articles such as appear on page 157 of the present issue should
be eliminated.” This was Cooper-Prichard’s “Proposed Arrangement of a Catalogue of Coins.” In 2006, a researcher looking into
Cooper-Prichard’s life called this “one of the most entertainingly pompous pieces of writing I have seen in a long time,” citing in
particular this quotation:
To omit a single detail of known information, regarding a coin or medal, whether on the specimen itself or outside, is unpardonable.
Almost equally unpardonable is it to place one word too much in such a description. That the greatest numismatic writers have sinned in
both these ways is nothing in favor of such carelessness any more than bad jokes are excusable because Shakespeare, to please the
inferior sort amongst his audience, disfigured his writings with them.”
It is not clear why or under what circumstances Cooper-Prichard’s tenure as librarian came to an end at the beginning of 1912. He refers
at one point to “the termination of my service” at the ANS but seemed to bear no ill-will toward it, telling secretary Bauman Belden he
planned to come visit him and do some research but the writing of what was apparently a non-numismatic book was taking up much of his time.
He referred also to promises he had made (“while I had every reason to believe myself still an officer of your Society”) of having books
sent to the British and Fitzwilliam museums and said he hoped the ANS would follow through in his absence. By the end of the year he was in
England seeking a position with the government there, and by 1915, three years behind in his dues, he was dropped from the Society’s rolls.
From that point on he seems to have disappeared from the historical record as a numismatist
To read the earlier E-Sylum article, see:
WILLIAM WEEKS AND HIS 1839 LARGE CENTS
MORE ON WILLIAM WEEKS (www.coinbooks.org/esylum_v18n35a12.html)
MORE ON WILLIAM WEEKS (www.coinbooks.org/esylum_v18n36a16.html)
Wayne Homren, Editor
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