ABOUT THE COORDINATOR

Launched: 22 December 2003. Last updated: 9 December 2011

An article appeared in my local paper about my Antarctic interests.


A few have asked recently who I am and how I got interested in the Antarctic. The Polar Libraries Colloquy asked me the same question a couple of years ago and asked me to write up something for its 'Bulletin.' Here it is:

Sometimes I'm asked how I got interested in the Antarctic. The Worst Journey in the World is the short answer. This classic, never-out-of-print Antarctic book by Apsley Cherry-Garrard has probably led more than one person to a state of Antarctic obsession. I encountered it while a student at Dartmouth College in the early 1960s. Later, while working for Columbia University, I would haunt the old Fourth Avenue secondhand book district, picking up the occasional Antarctic book. Over the years the collection has grown and expanded to include art, sculpture, music, stamps, medals, artifacts and other odds and ends. All told, there are 1588 [now 1851] items crammed into my house in Jaffrey, New Hampshire.

Being a city planner I saw little chance of getting to Antarctica other than by going as a tourist, so I began collecting sites of Antarctic interest outside of the Antarctic, a form of affordable vicarious polar exploration. While travelling I found I was coming upon, often by accident, a plaque or statue or house that had some Antarctic connection, my first being 56 Oakley Street in London where Captain Scott lived following his return from the Discovery expedition. I started jotting notes, clipping articles and taking photographs, all thrown into a carton. Eventually, the situation cried out for organization and with the advent of the home computer I developed a database which I call "A Low-Latitude Antarctic Gazetteer." The individual sites now number 630 [presently 717]. Some of these appeared in 1993-94 in three issues of the newsletter of 'The Antarctican Society' (Vol. 93-94, Nos 3-5) and later in pamphlet form. Many were posted as short 'episodes' to the Pollib-l, the Polar Libraries Colloquy listserv, between March 1996 and February 1999. These episodes--71 in all--were later included in my personal webpage beginning in October 1996. The Gazetteer is now one ingredient of many on the site I maintain called 'The Antarctic Circle' . [Some of these sites are included in the newest edition of Jeff Rubin's Lonely Planet guide to Antarctica and in the recent, massive Antarctica: The Complete Story by David McGonigal and Lynn Woodworth, published in Australia.] Copies of many of the photographs I've taken over the years of low-latitude sites reside at Scott Polar Research Institute.

The quest for new sites has been an interesting one and often serves as a theme around which I plan a trip. Last May I drove from Dundee to London, my route largely determined by sites I knew about but had never seen. I've found that traveling this way, you meet some wonderful people and experience some serendipitous adventures. Often one visit will lead to another unexpected one. When I tracked down Birdie Bowers' birthplace in Greenock, Scotland, a person at the nearby local museum said there were some Bowers artifacts in the museum in Paisley, unknown to me, and so I headed there next. It's a bit like genealogy: the pursuit of a new site is like seeking a new ancestor and all the more pleasurable when everything clicks and falls into place. What are my favorite sites? For history and setting and the added plus of enjoyable hospitality it's hard to beat 'The South Pole Inn' in Anascaul on Ireland's Dingle Peninsula, the pub the great Antarctic traveller Tom Crean opened when his sledging days were over. In May 2000, Jonathan Shackleton and I organized a long weekend that was spent visiting Irish Antarctic sites with a small group of Antarcticans. One of the highlights was lunch at the pub with Tom Crean's daughter and grandson, followed by a visit to his grave nearby. My next hunting excursion is likely to be Norway next year, again a long weekend with a few other Antarcticans [this happened in May 2003].

Now more about The Antarctic Circle. As I say on the homepage, it's "a non-commercial forum and resource on historical, literary, bibliographical, artistic and cultural aspects of Antarctica and the South Polar regions. The Antarctic Circle itself, as distinct from this website, is an informal international group of scholars and knowledgeable amateurs interested or involved in non-scientific Antarctic studies." There are now 75 "members" though few are aware of being members as there are no by-laws, no newsletter, no dues and no gatherings--though this may change someday. I'm the self-appointed Coordinator and although the salary is deficient, there is no board so I have life tenure. Those 75 I consider members are mostly writers, researchers, artists, collectors and such who have provided information to me or through me to others working on projects or trying to hunt down information. The Antarctic Circle, through its webpage and via e-mail, is a clearinghouse resource of sorts. I've tried to keep the site simple and easy to navigate, in part because I do all the coding myself and don't want to learn yet another computer application in order to add some of the more usual bells and whistles. I keep adding to the site and expanding its breadth. Although I welcome contributions of appropriate material from anyone, at the moment the only major section that isn't mine is Fauno Cordes' marvelous "Tekeli-li" or Hollow Earth Lives: A Bibliography of Antarctic Fiction. [Bill Fox, Bob Headland and Michael Rosove have since added interesting sections.] Fauno's been working on this for years and keeps adding to it. I included it in 1999 after Fauno recounted to me at a meeting at the Byrd Polar Research Center, that she got regular requests for copies which meant she had to take the typed original off to the copy shop, paying the costs and postage. I suggested she put it on the site where now it has more exposure and can be referred to or printed out with no trouble or expense.

Book collecting as I said was the start of my Antarctic obsession and remains at the core. I was fortunate to buy most of the highpoints when prices were a fraction of what they are today. A pristine first edition of the book that started it for me, The Worst Journey in the World, I bought at Sotherans in London in 1971 for 45. I friend of mine bought a somewhat grubby copy at the Boston Book Fair a few weeks ago for $2200! I remember when I nervously considered the purchase of an "Aurora Australis," generally considered the cornerstone of any Antarctic collection--written, illustrated, printed, bound and issued during Shackleton's Nimrod expedition. The London bookseller, Francis Edwards, offered a copy at 1,000. That was more than I had spent for my car. But I did buy it and have never regretted it. At the September 1999 High Latitude auction outside Seattle a copy fetched $50,000! More recently, I've obtained some artifacts, many as gifts but some at auction. The sledge harness used by Cherry-Garrard on The Worst Journey is in my collection, also Scott's pipe that was retrieved from the tent at the final camp by the search party. Possibly the rarest item is a Norwegian flag given by Amundsen to Lincoln Ellsworth with a notation in Ellsworth's hand that the flag had flown over the North Pole and had been to the South Pole. As with books, the artifacts that come up at auction these days are bringing prices unimaginable only a few years ago.

Nancy Liston at CRREL in Hanover, New Hampshire, suggested I might want to exhibit some of my collection in the library. This finally happened last year. I concentrated on everything but books. I enjoyed the final effect because for the first time I could see most of my collection all at once. One can still see the show at http://www.antarctic-circle.org/exhibit.htm.

Having a growing collection that 1) is outstripping the space available and 2) is not housed in ideal conditions raises issues that more than one collector has been forced to ponder. Do I end up dispersing the collection either before or after I shuffle off this mortal coil? Or do I try to develop it into something that will live on? I'm now tending to the latter and am investigating the idea of building a library with a small residence nearby that would be made available to researchers and writers who are pursuing Antarctic-related projects. A non-profit organization might be created to oversee things and possibly an association might be developed with a nearby university or institution to insure some continuity and legitimacy.

Another Antarctic activity I might mention is the Erebus & Terror Press, the imprint I've used for some ephemeral Antarctic publishing efforts, all for private distribution. Among the titles: Worsley Enchanted, a lengthy poem by Australian poet Douglas Stewart that first appeared in 1952; Your Hero, My Hero, contrasting Scott and Shackleton done in a dos-à-dos format; and two keepsakes which were great fun to produce. The first was done for a dinner at the Explorers Club that preceded the opening of the Shackleton show at the American Museum of Natural History. A hundred copies were printed and in the center spread rock fragments from both Elephant Island and South Georgia were glued to a nautical chart showing the track of the open boat voyage between the two islands. The latest was a somewhat similar production I did for a marvelous dinner that was held in the wardroom of Scott's 'Discovery' in Dundee and attended by several descendants of the expedition. Each of the 20 copies printed had a wood fragment from the deck of Scott's ship glued on a reproduction of the construction blueprints. (Trust me, the wood was provided by the Dundee Heritage Trust and not chiseled out by me.)

Since starting to collect books and 'low-latitude' sites as substitutes for travel to Antarctica, I've managed to get to the Peninsula and the Ross Sea six times, most recently as a lecturer on history. Who would have thought one book would have led to this.

The above piece appeared in Issue 50-51 of the 'Polar Libraries Bulletin', Fall 2001 - Spring 2002.

Rob Stephenson


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