Personal Collections, Vol. III

Our staff build, preserve, and provide access to the Newberry’s collection of 1.6 million books, 600,000 maps, and 500,000 manuscript pages. Many of them also methodically curate their own personal collections ranging from coffee mugs to Kennedy memorabilia.

In this blog series, Newberry staff members share their personal collections and explain how and why they collect what they collect.

NB: In accordance with professional standards for museum and library workers, Newberry staff practice strict "social distancing" from anything related to the Newberry's collecting interests to avoid any possible perceived conflict of interest.

Collector: Will Hansen, Curator of Americana
Collection: Dream Interpretation

How and when did you start your collection?

I couldn't tell you exactly when I started intentionally collecting books describing and interpreting dreams; about ten years ago, give or take a year or two. The collection grew out of a more general interest in surrealism and literature that engaged with "dreaminess" or dream logic in one way or another.

It's a cliche that the surest way to bore someone is by trying to tell them about a dream you had, but I found myself fascinated by attempts to record dreams, which inevitably fall short of the true experience––even if you're Vladimir Nabokov (who kept a rigorous written record of his dreams in the 1960s).Originally I only collected books in which people attempted to record real dreams they'd had, but I found a lot of the ephemeral dream-interpretation pamphlets that I came across irresistible, so "scope creep" set in.

What interests you about dream interpretation?

Part of my interest lies in the fact that I very rarely remember my own dreams––so those that I do remember tend to stay with me, and I try to keep some record of them as best I can, and understand where they came from.

I think dreams are incredibly important, but attempts to assign generalized meanings to things experienced in them are, most often, misguided and hilarious. Seeing a dog always means money's coming your way? Come on. And yet, the history of interpreting dreams in this way spans thousands of years. What I love about these dream interpretation pamphlets is the quintessentially human hope of finding meaning that they convey. Those that I collect––mostly from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries––are usually extremely cheap, often used to sell another product or service (a patent medicine, numbers to be used in a lottery, etc). That they are used in advertising shows how widespread their appeal is (or was, at least).

What is the gem of your collection?

They are all beloved!

For dream interpretation, the most beautiful is surely the limited edition of A Mediaeval Dream Book, translated from a fourteenth-century Latin manuscript into English, printed by Gogmagog Press in 1963.

For descriptions of real dreams, I have to go with my copy of the anthology Writers Dreaming, inscribed to me by the writer Allan Gurganus (whose dream appears in the anthology).

Are you actively building your collection? If so, how do you find new material to add to your collection?

I guess I would say that I'm semi-actively building the collection. I have a short list of "wants" for which I keep alerts on a couple of online used and rare bookselling sites. There are a few booksellers who know this peculiar collecting area of mine and will let me know when something crosses their path. Mostly, though, I prefer serendipitous discovery when trawling through the pamphlet boxes in used and rare bookstores.