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NIEHS' Robertson Collects Books, Illustrations

By Colleen Chandler

He intended to be a chemist, but it apparently wasn't in the books for him. Then again, maybe it was.

NIEHS library director William Davenport Robertson, better known as "Dav," is surrounded by books these days, both at home and at work.

Since he came to NIEHS as the first professional librarian in 1977, when the institute's book collection numbered maybe a thousand, the library has grown to 25,000 books and 500 subscriptions and has gone from the bookshelves into cyberspace. About 75 percent of the library's journals are now available online, and the library proudly offers its electronic resources to scientists in search of information.

But it is the real thing — the old standby hardbacks — that draws Robertson's attention. In the latter half of the 19th century, printers began printing books on acidic paper. Unless those books are kept away from light and moisture, they deteriorate. In another 50 to 100 years, the literary history of that time period will literally be in crumbles, Robertson said.

NIEHS library director Dav Robertson collects old books and illustrations such as the artwork by N.C. Wyeth that became the cover of Treasure Island. His collection includes children's books, nature handbooks for kids and young adults, mysteries and books on natural history and western North Carolina history.

His old-book collecting days began years ago when he stumbled across an old Sax Rohmer mystery novel from the 1930s in his mother-in-law's attic. He found himself looking for — and finding — more of Rohmer's books.

He searches old book stores and other likely sources for first editions, preferably signed by the author. All told, he says he has about 150 books that are "worth something." No doubt he has plenty more with value that cannot be defined in monetary terms.

In addition to Rohmer, Robertson collects mysteries from modern mystery writer Nevada Barr and North Carolina mystery writer Margaret Maron.

A native of Hickory, N.C., Robertson also collects books on the history of western North Carolina. One of his favorites, Happy Valley, is a genealogy of the William Lenoir family that settled in western North Carolina before the American Revolution. Lenoir was Robertson's great great great great grandfather. Robertson is named after William Davenport Robertson, who married Lenoir's daughter and built Walnut Fountain, a historic home that still stands today near Lenoir, the town named for the family.

Other Robertson favorites are in the Rivers of America series that also began in the 1930s. Books in that series provide historical accounts of riverside communities, and give information on natural history, human settlement and geology, he said.

Robertson has always had somewhat of a hankering for history. After he discovered in college that lab work was not for him, he became a history major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, specializing in East Asian history.

He thought he had found his calling, and joined the Peace Corps. He spent 2 years in Korea, teaching English at a university and developed a bond with the people there. He said he realized that he was not interested in studying these people, but he maintains a cultural interest in the art and history of the region.

He returned to the United States and to Carolina to study library science. Recently, he was elected to the position of chapter cabinet chair-elect for the Special Libraries Association, an international association of libraries from 60 countries.

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