Professor’s rare dictionary collection goes on display

Dr. Joe Fulton, a Baylor English professor, collects dictionaries. A portion of his collection is currently on display at the Waco-McLennan Country Library until Oct. 31.Carlye Thornton | Lariat Photo Editor
Dr. Joe Fulton, a Baylor English professor, collects dictionaries. A portion of his collection is currently on display at the Waco-McLennan Country Library until Oct. 31.
Carlye Thornton | Lariat Photo Editor
By Sara Katherine Johnson

Dr. Joe Fulton, a Baylor English professor, likes reading dictionaries so much that he collects them.

There are 28 dictionaries in The Fulton Collection of American Dictionaries with publications spanning from 1806 to 2014. The collection is so uncommon that the librarians at the Waco-McLennan County Library thought it deserved an exhibit.

At 11 a.m. Saturday, Fulton will speak at the library where his exhibit is housed.

Fulton said he has never counted all the dictionaries he owns. Besides the 28 on display at the library, Fulton’s private collection includes dictionaries that are not solely focused on America. The outliers were excluded for the sake of creating a cohesive display, he said.

The final compilation that makes up the exhibit opened to the public July 1 and will run through Oct. 31.

Fulton said he discovered his love for dictionaries through American literature. Before he could even read, his older sister read “Tom Sawyer” to him, and his other sister gave him a copy of “Huckleberry Finn” for his eighth birthday. This is where his passion for words began.

“The words that Twain uses, you aren’t going to find in a run-of-the-mill dictionary,” Fulton said. “It’s interesting to me to see when and where words crop up.”

By age 12 Fulton said he was interested in dictionaries specifically.

All of the dictionaries have their own individual importance to him, Fulton said. His favorite dictionary changes depending on which one he happens to be holding in his hands.

He said he sometimes waits in anticipation of a new volume release or watches websites for an affordable price. On rare occasions, he will simply find a dictionary at a book sale.

It was a serendipitous experience coming to own Richard Smith Coxe’s A New Critical Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1813, Fulton said.

Originally, Fulton said he meant to buy a more common dictionary. The book he received was a rebound, spliced together version.

Fulton said he guesses the lawyer who owned them bound them together for casual use at his desk. This is an example of the distinctive stories behind Fulton’s dictionaries on display.

According to notes Fulton gave the library, he can trace back information on three original owners of his dictionaries on display.

Inside one dictionary he received, he found an engraved certificate that suggested the dictionary was a graduation present for the owner. The woman who owned it was Dr. Mary Danforth who in 1887 was the first woman admitted to the New Hampshire Medical Society.

Several of Fulton’s other books also offer him a glimpse into America’s past, including one dictionary that was signed by American writer Dorothy Parker.

Claire Masters, the library volunteer who coordinates exhibits at The Waco-McLennan Library, is the one who initiated the exhibit after she met Fulton in an antique mall and learned about his interesting hobby.

“People use dictionaries,” Masters said. “It never occurs to them that there’s a history to them.”

When Masters and Fulton talked about his collection in depth, Fulton said her eyes lit up when she found out he was a collector. After their initial meeting, they talked many more times and together made way for the American dictionaries at the library where Fulton has been able to see public interest in what has been a private hobby for so long.

“It made me feel really good about a community that has people like that in it, who are still going to the library, still interested in books,” Fulton said.