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Historic Dictionary Collection - exhibition in Special Collections: on display Tues. February 6th through June 21, 2007

Illustration from a historic dictionary included in the Edward J. Bloustein Dictionary collection

Starting in February the Libraries will celebrate the acquisition of a historic dictionary collection with the exhibition Everything from A to Z: The Edward J. Bloustein Dictionary Collection.

Edward J. Bloustein, Rutgers' seventeenth president, was an avid and informed collector of dictionaries. While focusing on general English-language dictionaries, he also collected more specialized works such as compendia of slang, originally published to help understand the speech of criminals; dictionaries of biography; and dictionaries of synonyms, the ancestors of today's thesauri. In 2004, his daughters Elise and Lori Bloustein donated his collection to the Rutgers University Libraries. The collection includes over 170 titles, dating from Thomas Cooper's Thesaurus Linguae Romanae et Britannicae (1573) to the controversial Webster's Third International (1961).

Johnson famously defined a lexicographer or dictionary-maker as a "harmless drudge." In reality, lexicographers were amazingly erudite, sometimes colorful characters like Johnson himself. They often engaged in bitter personal and commercial rivalries, such as the little-known dispute between Thomas Blount and Edward Phillips in the seventeenth century, and the better known rivalries between Samuel Johnson and Nathaniel Bailey in the eighteenth, and Noah Webster and Joseph Worcester in the nineteenth centuries. This last conflict culminated in the dominance of the Merriam-Webster imprint, which continues to this day. The exhibition includes examples of various editions of all of these dictionaries, as well as beautiful engravings from the 1764 revision of Bailey's work by Joseph Nichol Scott.

The history of dictionaries reflects changes in culture and society as well as the evolution of language itself. This exhibition traces the development of these fascinating reference tools from the vocabularies of the Renaissance to the popular dictionaries of the twentieth century. Although some early foreign language works are included, the focus is on the monolingual English dictionary. These began as the "hard-word books" of the seventeenth century, which explained Latinate terms used by elites to an increasingly literate public. With the rise of Great Britain as an imperial power in the eighteenth century, the production of a major English language dictionary became a matter of national pride. Meanwhile, in the post-Revolutionary United States, American usage and culture was given expression in Noah Webster's famous American Dictionary of the English Language of 1828.

The twentieth century saw the completion of the monumental Oxford English Dictionary, one of the first published parts of which can be seen in the exhibition. Also on view are items from Rutgers University Libraries' rare book collections, including medieval and Renaissance precursors of the dictionary form, several miniature "Webster's" from the Alden Jacobs Collection, and portraits of famous lexicographers, as well as photographs generously made available by the Oxford University Press Archives.

The exhibition will be on display from February 6th through June 21st in Gallery '50 and the Special Collections and University Archives Gallery on the first floor and lower level of the Archibald S. Alexander Library at 169 College Avenue in New Brunswick. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Saturday 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. during the academic year.

Posted January 8, 2007; revised February 23, 2007