It was L.M. Montgomery’s dream to write a story that would live, and it cannot be denied that the red headed orphan, Anne Shirley, has lived for well over one hundred years in people’s hearts. Everyone has a special and personal connection to Anne’s story. It is little wonder then that Library and Archives Canada (LAC) sought to preserve this Canadian literary classic. For those who are unfamiliar with LAC, they are a federal institution responsible for archiving, preserving, and making Canada’s documentary heritage accessible to the public.
Between 1999 and 2003, a gentleman by the name of Ronald I. Cohen donated his entire L.M. Montgomery collection. On August 4, 2016, LAC published a podcast titled Kindred Spirits After All, where Special Collections Librarian Meaghan Scanlon interviews Mr. Cohen about his collection and his decision to donate it.
Cohen begins by describing his instinct as a collector. Book collecting came naturally to him as he was an avid collector growing up (although rocks might have been much easier to collect). However, Cohen’s decision to start collecting the Canadian classic did not stem from his love for Anne Shirley. In fact, Cohen shockingly reveals, he hadn’t read the series when he began his journey as a collector! Librarian Meaghan Scanlon and listeners alike may find this hard to believe, but Cohen insists that his connection to the series stemmed from his desire to make a feature film out of Anne of Green Gables: The Musical.
As much as we would love to see this production on the big screen, Cohen reminds us that it’s not as simple as having the idea and then immediately executing it. There are many legal considerations and copyrights to work out. Thus, he began his search for the first edition of the novel Anne of Green Gables.
Although we celebrate 1908 as the year the novel was first published, many would be surprised to find out that it was not physically published in Canada until 1942. This is also the same year that L.M. Montgomery passed away in Toronto. Montgomery chose American based publishers, despite the many difficulties she faced with them as Anne became more successful. As Cohen points out, it didn’t mean you couldn’t purchase the novel in Canada, but it does affect the search for first edition copies for book collectors.
Cohen’s book collecting journey eventually led him to early film versions of the novel. The first film from 1919, a silent film, is generally considered lost to history. The 1934 version is easier to track down, though it is largely overshadowed by Kevin Sullivan’s 1985 miniseries.
However, Cohen began looking for artifacts from the films before 1985, and to his surprise, he came across two movie posters on EBay. They came from a man in a small town in Michigan who used the movie posters to insulate his house, which was once the town cinema. To a preserver such as Scanlon, this would be a shock, but Cohen remarks that this unorthodox preservation kept the posters away from direct sunlight and actually kept them in good condition (thank goodness there were no floods).
According to Cohen, there is “no piece to small, if related, to be of interest… You never know when such items are going to be of interest… to someone.” As a historian, I greatly respect Mr. Cohen’s opinion on collecting and preserving. One thing that really stood out to me was the way he approached collecting as a way of filling in the gaps of history. He was not collecting simply for the sake of collecting, or to have them sit on his bookshelf. He was looking for clues that would indicate how books were published, where they were published and how they were marketed.
When Meaghan took him to the LAC preservation center to see the collection, Cohen’s main concern was the patterns you could find just by having the books sitting side by side. He says: “it looks very accessible… having everything as visible, side by side, offers such points of comparison that can… jump out at you… when you just look at the volumes.”
Accessibility and historiography are an important theme of this podcast episode, and we are lucky that organizations such as Library and Archives Canada continue to provide a space for what Cohen refers to as “items of interest.” Of course, by the end of the podcast Meaghan asks Cohen again whether he has since read the Anne of Green Gables series.
He pauses, laughs, and says yes.
You can find more Anne related items, including books and films, at Shop At Sullivan!