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Librarian collects antiques out of love for history

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Lydia Bigard said she has collected some 40 cameras over the last year and a half, since she started collecting antiques, and she swears she will get a modern one some day in the future.

Perhaps, when it becomes an antique.

Bigard, the managing librarian at the Forest Park Branch of the Clayton County Library System, collects cameras, phonographs, linens, China, and other items -- including a pharmacy scale -- that she estimates date back to between the 1860s and the 1950s.

Although she keeps most of her collection at home, several items she has acquired -- including four phonographs (one of which was made by Thomas Edison's recording company), at least eight cameras, and the pharmacy scale -- can be found in Bigard's office at the library.

"I was a history major in college, so I like old things," she said. "I like the stories that come with them. There's just something about vintage items that can't be matched."

Bigard said she purchased the items in her collection through a variety of venues, including Internet auctions, thrift stores, and estate sales. She said she is not quite sure how much it all has cost her, but it has not been a cheap hobby to maintain. A usable phonograph (or gramophone as they were called in Great Britain) will likely cost at least $350-$450, she said.

"They [the auctions] are very competitive," Bigard said. "There are collectors, who are buying it just to collect, and then, there are people who are buying it for business purposes. They are antiques dealers ... I collect. I like the value to me. I don't care what the value is to someone whose only interest is re-selling it."

Bigard said one key to buying antiques is to look for information about the item before deciding to buy it. Some of the sites where she has found information include Camerapedia.org, and CollectorsWeekly.com. How much a person should expect to pay for an antique is "what you're willing to pay for it," she said.

Among all of the items Bigard has collected, she said she has an affinity for the old cameras and phonographs. "Some of them, I just like for the decorations," she said.

Her favorite camera in her collection is a wood box Agfa, folding camera, which is about one-foot tall, by eight-inches wide. It, she said, dates from the early 1900s.

When the camera is all folded up, it looks like an ordinary pecan-brown, varnished box with a holding strap on top. Once the front panel from the box is removed, though, the front of the camera can be folded out to reveal its single lens, black bellows, and gold, metal trim.

"I just like the style," Bigard said. "I like that it's vintage ... I want to say it's from 1902, or something like that."

Still, she is not sure which of her cameras work, and which do not, because she is not yet familiar with how to use them. "This one [a Speed Graphic folding camera] is supposed to work, according to the auction information, but I haven't been able to use it yet," she said. "I'm reading up on them online, and I'm going to take a photography class, eventually, to learn how to use these cameras."

One item she knows is in working condition is a traveling phonograph that comes in a small suitcase, and sits on top of a cabinet in her office. Because of its small size, Bigard said it, and an even smaller cylinder phonograph that sits on a shelf behind her desk, were "the iPods of their day."

Their day was 100 years ago, by the way.

"It's just the portability of them," Bigard said. "You could take them with you on a trip, or on a picnic."

She pulled the phonograph down from its perch on Monday, placed it on her chair, where she opened its case and turned a crank on the front. She had to wind up the crank so it could cause the record sitting on the turntable, a copy of the Mills brothers' rendition of "I'll Never Be Without a Dream (As Long As I Have You)," to begin spinning.

She then picked up the phonograph's silver needle arm, which has a speaker just above the needle, and she gently moved it over to the record.

The needle made contact with the record and, immediately, the scratchy sounds of an old-time recording, with the Mills brothers singing the lyrics in harmony, and an orchestra playing as their backup, loudly fills Bigard's office.

"The only thing about this phonograph is it doesn't have a volume control," she said.

People, who are patrons of the Forest Park library branch, may get to see a part of Bigard's antiques collection some day. Every month, library staffers change display cases to carry a different theme. In September, a display highlighted the life of famed cook, Julia Child, and a Halloween display, honoring the Alfred Hitchcock movie "Psycho," will go up soon.

So, how about an antiques theme?

"I'm planning on doing a photography display, possibly with my cameras in it, at some point in the future, but I haven't decided when," Bigard said.