The Flag Research Center Library

by David F. Phillips

The most interesting collections are made not by professional librarians but by single-minded scholar-collectors who have a vision. A collection like that of the Flag Research Center is built up from an ideal of perfect knowledge. This ideal arises in the mind, or maybe the heart, of a person who loves a subject. The ideal, like the love from which it was born, is real but without substance. Books and files and journals and documents are laid over the ideal one at a time by the visionary collector, to give it substance. In time these gifts accrete into a kind of body, and the beloved subject assumes a physical form. Each item contributes a scrap of knowledge; the scraps form a fabric, and piece by piece the fabric is worked and shaped until the now embodied subject can be seen luminous and whole.

Collections like this are never finished, not just because there is no end to knowledge, but because love can never be completely fulfilled. There is always room for more – indeed, more is always needed, because the ideal of perfect knowledge requires the presence of all that can be known, which can never be.

Whenever I visit Dr. Whitney Smith’s Flag Research Center in Winchester, Massachusetts, with its unique and irreplaceable collections piled high in every room on every floor of a large rambling suburban frame house, files in cabinets and files in footlockers, books in the bedrooms and under the stairs, I feel as if I have left the ordinary world and entered a place of fable, where the subject which I also love has been embodied and made manifest. Whatever aspect of it interests you, there is more on it there than you ever saw before, or knew existed.

Do you have an interest today in German regimental colors of the Second Empire? Here are reference books, of course, but also official patterns, and cigarette card albums, and magnificent portfolios of lithographed prints, and little pocket handbooks, and tables showing the cravats and streamers used on these flags and the decorations each regiment hung on them, and the finials on the poles. And army regulations, and auction catalogues, and newspaper clippings, and the manuscript files of German scholars, and works from earlier and later periods showing continuity of design, and works on flags of other countries influenced by the German patterns, and works on tangential subjects with relevant color plates. If a work was published in successive editions, all of them are here.

Not interested in German regimental colors today? How about French or Italian ones, or Romanian or Brazilian? How about the designs suggested in a contest among schoolchildren in 1918 for redesigning the state flag of Indiana? How about a manual of flag usage for 17th century Italian sea captains? How about a mimeographed essay in Creole about the changes in Haitian flags from independence to the 1980s? A manuscript in antique script, showing all the flags known to Dutch diplomats a few hundred years ago? The official gazette giving specifications for this year’s design change in the flag of a central Asian country? Rank flags of the Mexican Navy, as varied over time? Tibetan prayer flags? Nelson’s flag signal at Trafalgar? The official French flag book of 1923 (or 1990), with annual supplements and the pages which were supposed to have been discarded? Vexilloids of ancient Egypt? The truth about Betsy Ross? Provincial flags of Papua-New Guinea? A complete run of a Finnish flag journal? Flags worn by ships of the British Phosphate Commission which once administered Christmas Island in the distant Indian Ocean? What do you need? What do you want to know? If it’s about flags, it’s all either here now or not here yet.

Even not here yet is here in the imagination, in the ideal of perfection, of completeness, which is for the true scholar-collector what the dream of fleshly possession is for the lover. For even though the raiment of knowledge that gives shape to the ideal subject is not complete in every thread, after decades of patient work enough of it is there to let us see the subject clothed in perfection. And imagined as complete, it makes a whole unified vision not only of flags through the ages and around the world, as one of Whitney’s own books was titled, but through them of the entire panoply of the nations of the world, and the intricate web of power and identity and causality and imagery in which they are suspended, from the ancient birth of nations to the arbitrary ordering and sub-ordering of today. Like St. John’s vision of the New Jerusalem, also an ideal of the heart, it may be said not only of this perfect library of the heart and mind, but also of the magnificent actual library at Winchester which approaches and approximates it, that “the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it.” Revelation 21:24.

December 2010

This essay was published in October 2011 as the lead article
in the final issue [No. 233] of Flag Bulletin.