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A Talk at the Library of Congress

William S. Reese


The relationship between collectors and libraries, which sounds as if it should be simple, has a way of becoming complex. Consider the following story, with the names omitted to protect the innocent. A well-known collector gave his books and manuscripts to a large university library. The curators were extremely grateful, and hoped to benefit further from the collector's expertise by making him an honorary curator and allowing him full access to the collection. Several years later, a librarian at the institution happened to be reading the newsletter of another university library. He saw several manuscripts which he recognized as from the donated collection listed as gifts from the collector he had imagined to be his patron. It turned out that the collector was stealing his collection back and giving it away all over again, naturally taking a second tax deduction. When confronted, he said it was just like collecting all over again.

Happily, the interactions of collectors and institutions seldom get this complicated. On the face of it, there would seem to be a natural symbiosis between the private enthusiast and the public repository, wrapped around a mutual love of books and all they represent in terms of knowledge, learning and culture. That relationship has played a key role in the building of American libraries from colonial times onward. But these relationships are under pressure today for a variety of reasons, ranging from issues as commonplace as the tax laws to the meaning of books in civilization. I speak in generalities; there are going to be numerous exceptions among collectors and libraries to everything I put forward here, but I am arguing broad trends, not specific cases.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record to those who have been kind enough to read or listen to any of my previous utterances on collecting and the book market, I believe the single, primary factor in book collecting in modern times, either private or institutional, is the scarcity of material in the marketplace. This drives everything; what there is to collect, who can or cannot afford to collect it, how the collector feels about getting their hands on it, and how they feel about letting go. The central fact of the book market over the last century has been the flow of books, manuscripts, and related material from private hands into the care of public institutions. This transfer has progressed in fits and starts. It began as a trickle early in the century, grew to a steady stream in the 1920s, as the foundations of many great modern libraries were laid, hiccupped and sometimes went in reverse during the Depression and the cataclysms of World War II, and then became a mighty torrent in the postwar decades. Since 1980 the river has diminished steadily, as the buying power of institutions ? and their ability to attract gifts ? has slowed markedly. Now, however, most of the antiquarian books in the world are in institutions, and what remains in private hands and therefore potentially in the market, is a small minority of the total.

Early on in this process, book collectors realized that the growth of institutional libraries would constrict the supply available to them. The great American collector Robert Hoe, who died in 1909, famously stated in his will that he wished his books auctioned, rather than placed in an institution, so that other collectors might have the pleasure of owning them. The Hoe proclamation has been repeated by many collectors, with increasing fervor, and sometimes bitterness, ever since. The great Americana collector Frank T. Siebert, whose collection was sold at Sotheby?s in 1999, was a good example of the latter. In my long correspondence with him, he frequently turned to the theme of how many opportunities had been snatched from him by libraries, whose competition he viewed as unfair and unnatural. His anger was so great that, even though he told me on a number of occasions that he wished for his collection to stay intact, he could never bring himself to leave it to an institution ? much less think of a library he wasn?t mad at. I suggested several possible places, but in one of his last letters to me he wrote, "It is usually a mistake to give a distinguished collection to an institution."

Now, Dr. Siebert was a fairly cantankerous man who sometimes took misanthropy to new heights, but the basic thrust of his views are shared, I think by more than a few collectors in modern times. Many classic areas of book collecting have become simply unapproachable, and some books literally unobtainable, even though the total census of copies may be fairly high. Barring a new discovery, which seems unlikely, the Bay Psalm Book became unobtainable to collectors in 1955, when the last copy in private hands was given to the Library of Congress. The thought of this is irksome to private collectors who would like one. Yet, with eleven known copies in institutions, it is not as rare as many other 17th-century American imprints. It is simply off limits to the aspiring Americanist.

There is considerable fellow feeling among collectors, and I think this is a very real factor in deciding how to dispose of their collections. Many of them will prefer to see those resources that remain in the open market recycle simply because they share Hoe?s sentiments. In 1910 it was hard to believe that there weren?t plenty of books to go around. Of course, the lion?s share of Hoe?s books never did recycle ? they went to Henry Huntington, and then into the Huntington Library, where they are today.

Most collectors I know warmly support the ideals of special collections, but that doesn?t mean they want all of their material to go there. Many feel that some kinds of things ? a literary archive, for example ? ought to be preserved in a library, but that other sorts of material ? presentation copies of literary works, or fine copies of what we might call "standard rarities" such as a first edition of Lewis & Clark, or other rare books widely represented in institutional holdings, should stay in the hands of collectors. A collecting field like stamps, which has virtually no institutional participation, operates as a kind of zero-sum game, with the same body of stuff circulating and recirculating within the world of collectors. Here, provided one has enough money and lives long enough, any collector can aspire to own the greatest rarities. The frustrations of market scarcity makes a number of collectors wish such a world existed in books. When the time comes to dispose of their collections they will act accordingly. The market, avid for material, will reward them or their heirs.

* * * * *

In 1910, there was no distinction to be drawn between books and information ? they were one in the same. Very few rare texts had been reprinted, and alternative means of information storage were unknown. The culture of books and the culture of learning were virtually indistinguishable. The disposition of a great collection of rare books loomed as large in this era as a media merger today ? the Hoe sale was a front page story in the newspapers for days on end, because it represented a transfer of knowledge as well as the movement of artifacts. There was no dichotomy between text and object.

Progressive waves of technology, from photo-offset reprints to microfilm to modern digital technologies, have vastly reduced the primacy of the book as the sole source of text. This has been most important for the major institutional libraries, who have often been at the forefront of these new innovations in the dissemination of information. As a result, some of them question the role of printed material as an artifact worth preserving. The first areas to come under attack were the bulkiest and least loved by traditional bibliophiles, newspapers. After wholesale microfilming, the vast majority of newspaper collections in American libraries have been dispersed. Pamphlets and unlovely formats such as government documents were next. Major institutions, who should have recognized their role as major research libraries to preserve these collections, used the arguments of the need for space and the need to preserve texts printed on acidic paper to destroy their own collections. Whatever the justification of the former, I can tell you I bought and sold many of these materials when they re-entered the antiquarian market as scrap, and that they were perfectly sound except for the damage done them in microfilming.

But all that is another story, and let me choke back the vitriol rising in my throat and address how this affects collectors and institutions. The first issue is a question of trust; the second is a question of how the artifact of the book is perceived.

Some collectors today don?t trust institutions to remain interested in their books, were they to leave them to their care. Collectors may be more or less concerned with the information contained in the books they?ve assembled, but almost universally they are concerned with the artifacts themselves. Very likely they are comfortable with the idea of deaccessioning duplicates, which returns objects to the marketplace without altering what is available in the library. But they do fear the abandonment of the artifacts entirely. Some years ago I was attending the annual ?friends of the library? meeting of a major university, where we were addressed by the new president of that institution. He devoted his introductory talk to describing how the advances in information technology might one day eliminate the need for the library. Amazingly ? and this may have been what was most frightening ? he seemed to have no perception that this was the wrong topic for this particular audience. Happily, that university library is still intact and acquiring, and seems to have survived this particular flight of administrative rhetoric. Not all will be so lucky. Every such encounter, every mass disposal, will lessen the confidence of the collector. I don?t doubt that every person in this room feels a wholehearted commitment to the importance of book as artifact. But can those of you who work for libraries say that the administrators of your institution share that commitment?

What meaning does the artifact possess? The classic idea of the private library, up to the time of Hoe, was a demonstration of the accumulated knowledge at the command of the collector, in an era when books were the primary vehicle for conveying information. Knowledge is power, and the possessor of a large private library was thus a powerful person, with access to information denied to people without books. The rise of public institutions began to democratize knowledge in the 19th century; the Internet has now universalized it. The book, especially the first edition of a classic widely available in reprint or digitally, assumes a significance as iconic as it is textual. The collector of today has few illusions that they are assembling a unique collection of knowledge. They are more often collecting a series of cultural icons.

This idea, which I think few collectors would express consciously, has greatly influenced modern book collecting. The idea of a comprehensive collection in any given field can seem superfluous, because all of the information is available from a variety of sources. But the iconic value remains imbedded in the artifact. The best possible example of this is the Declaration of Independence in the first, Dunlap, broadside printing. Few texts are more readily available ? I have one printed on a paper place mat, and you could probably download it from hundreds of Internet sources. But the value of the icon was $8,000,000 at auction last year. This is an extreme example, but illustrates the point well. There is less desire to assemble, say, hundreds of economic tracts, and more interest in having nice copies of Adam Smith, Malthus, and Ricardo. Fewer people want to seek out every published word of a single author, and more want high-spots of Western literature. Fewer collect for information, often widely available elsewhere, and more collect for icon, printed incarnations of symbolic moments or seminal thoughts.

Libraries, on the other hand, are faced with a dual challenge: the delivery of information and the preservation of artifacts. Depending on who is making the decisions, the preservation of the text may loom larger than the preservation of the artifact, despite all of the unwritten or marginal messages an object carries with it. Many issues inform decisions of this kind ? space and budget considerations are more often than not the driving factors. But, when the net result is the disposal of artifacts, they will put the sensibilities of the private collectors and the institutions at odds.

The advent of the many extraordinary projects to digitize images and texts will create a double bind for institutions in their relations with collectors. On one hand, some libraries will see alternative formats as a replacement for originals, thus alienating collectors. Even if they remain true to their artifacts, the new formats and their implementation will be highly consumptive of money and staff time.

Alternatively, some collectors will see these projects as reasons why the institutions don?t need the originals. Why take a rare and valuable artifact out of private hands if these new technologies of presentation are so successful? Either way, the institutions are less likely to be able to add to their traditional collections.

All of these factors, I think, contribute to a feeling that libraries and collectors are less in tune with each other in their concerns than they were in the heyday of institutional acquisition in the 1950s and ?60s. A wealth of supply and a shared belief in the primacy of the printed word made the two worlds sympathetic. Now, there are times when the two parties don?t seem to speak the same language. The collector, of necessity, is wedded to the artifact. Institutions must convince collectors that they still care as much as they ever did, while pioneering new technologies as well.

* * * * *

Let us take a look at taxes. There is presently a lively debate over the degree to which tax reform will affect organizations which depend to one degree or another on donations. No one can doubt that, whatever charitable instincts collectors entertained in the past, the tax situation of the immediate post-World War II period aided the growth of institutional libraries immensely. With marginal tax rates at 90% and later 70%, there were extraordinary incentives for individuals to donate highly appreciated assets. The rise in book prices fueled this trend. The same logic applied both then and now to the 55% death tax for wealthy individuals. The lowering of the income tax rate has correspondingly eroded the financial incentive to give books to institutions. The only point that has remained in their favor is the retention of a 28% capital gain rate on so-called "collectibles." This is widely regarded in collecting circles as a most unfair distinction, but there is no national collector?s organization to lobby on Capitol Hill, so it may remain that way. The proposed elimination of the death tax would be a major blow to institutional expectations of bequests. Clearly, they cannot count on the tax code to drive collectors into their arms in the immediate future. Institutions, to gain support, must convince potential donors of their mission and their effectiveness in carrying it out.

The price levels now prevailing in the high end of the book market also mitigate against donations of materials. Two generations ago, even an academic salary was sufficient to build a collection in many fields. Now, even for a wealthy collector, book purchases may represent a significant capital investment. Few collectors buy books strictly as investments, but the sums involved almost force them to give serious consideration, if the collection is a large one, to its value in their holdings or estates. The same prices which have marginalized institutions as direct buyers in a market now dominated by private collectors will slow the rate of donations.

In short, I think there are more stumbling blocks to the collector-institutional relationship now than there were in the previous several generations. However, I don?t think the situation is of necessity bleak. There are many things that can be done to bring the two groups together.

* * * * *

While high-spot collecting is the general trend of the upper end of the rare book world, there are plenty of comprehensive collectors still out there, some of them acquiring on a scale that few, if any, institutions in their fields can match. The comparative lowering of acquisitions budges relative to the total rare book market makes this even more true. Also, closely applied knowledge and a moderate amount of money can be very effective. In my field of Americana I think particularly of Michael Zinman in early American imprints and David Rumsey in American cartography. Both of these collectors provide interesting case studies in the interaction of collectors and institutions in modern times.

Michael Zinman, a gentleman known to many of you in this room, has been a serious book collector for the last thirty years, and since about 1980 a determined acquisitor of American imprints prior to 1801, the period defined by Charles Evans in his pioneering American Bibliography. Over two decades Michael formed the largest collection of such material brought together in the 20th century, and the eighth largest in existence, ranking with the major institutional holdings, all of which had their origins in the 18th or 19th centuries. Michael?s relationships with the important institutions in the field were vital to his career as a collector. He consulted with the librarians most concerned on an almost daily basis, particularly Jim Green at the Library Company of Philadelphia. The North American Imprints Project at the American Antiquarian Society, the most up-to-date bibliographical source in the field, was crucial to the identification of many items, and the catalogue of the Zinman collection was made possible by creating a separate CD-Rom version of that database and annotating it with the Zinman holdings. At the same time Michael supplied the institutions he was in touch with, and the Imprints Project, a wealth of data on his copies, information on new discoveries he had made, and made gifts of items he found in the course of his collecting. When Michael retained me to help him sell his collection in 1998, it was clear to both of us that the Zinman collection had become a resource which should not be broken up. Happily we were able to arrange a combination of the sale over a period of years, with a partial gift of the collection, to the Library Company. There it joins the already combined Historical Society of Pennsylvania/ Library Company holdings to form the second largest collection of pre-1801 imprints, second only to the American Antiquarian Society. The Zinman collection grew out of a combination of old-fashioned collecting enthusiasm and modern institutionally sponsored bibliography; and it stayed intact because of the willingness of collector and institution to work together in transferring it from private to public hands.

David Rumsey has built one of the greatest private collections of American cartography, primarily of the 19th century. The Rumsey collection remains private, but Dave has embarked on a remarkable, cutting-edge project of digitizing his holdings, which shares his extraordinary collection with the public and institutions online. He is now working with the Library of Congress on this endeavor, but much of the labor is being done in his garage converted into photo studio in San Francisco, where he is systematically digitizing the tens of thousands of maps in his collection. The ability to manipulate and study the cartography has to be seen to be believed, which anyone can do at www.davidrumsey.com. As impressive as this web site is, his project, and his joint work with the Library of Congress, is all the more amazing when viewed in conjunction with the original material. Spending a morning with his collection with both the originals and the digital images at hand is the best argument I?ve seen yet that technology validates, not outmodes, the need for special collections of original materials. In the case of the Rumsey collection, a private collector with a vision has been able to work with major institutions to increase access and understanding of rare materials.

* * * * *

A substantial part of the special collections in libraries in this country today have come there as the gifts of collectors. This is the way the greatest collections have been built; not one book at a time but whole, comprehensive blocks of books. James Babb, the librarian of Yale during the great era of institutional expansion in the ?50s and ?60s, liked to say that he didn?t collect books, he collected collectors. This kind of acquisition, however, takes a lot of groundwork. Yale and Harvard in an earlier era had two great teachers, Chauncy Brewster Tinker and George Parker Winship, who convinced students, through their courses and their use of rare materials in their teaching, of the value of book collecting and the need for great libraries to support scholarship. This bread cast on the waters in the 1920s and ?30s paid off in spades several decades later, when those students brought their collections back home.

I am convinced that the greatest single thing special collections, at least those in university settings, can do is bring students into the collections, not just as readers but in classes using materials from the collections in the classroom. This will require working closely with faculty members, and for some, altering their procedures for the use of rare material. It will be worth it. The Beinecke Library at Yale, in its recent renovation, has given up some stack space to create additional classrooms within the building, and bring more classes into physical contact with rare books, just as Tinker thrilled his classes by passing around Keats letters and first editions of Boswell. These moments can shape lifetime loyalties. The collectors who were first enthused by such experiences felt an intellectual debt to their alma maters throughout their lives. Many special collections have tried hard, over the last several decades, to make themselves more accessible, through on-line catalogues and less restrictive use policies. If they are within universities, I think they should go further to bring classes, not just readers, inside their doors.

Outside the university setting, I think institutions should seek ways to meet and seek the support of collectors. Traditionally, that meant cultivating them with a hope of getting their collections some day. While that is not an unreasonable hope, it seems to me that collectors and institutions should have goals in common beyond a transfer of books. Any active collector should come to understand the importance of bibliographical scholarship in their field, and of special collections as dynamos for the study of the topics that interest them. I firmly believe that collectors have a stake in scholarship, and if they can be convinced of that, will support the institutions which foster it. As the reluctance of collectors to let their materials pass into institutions grows, the old role of donor of books must progress into more general support for programs. Here, again, I think it is instructive to look at art museums and how their relationships with patrons have evolved. The funding of independent research libraries in this country is a drop in the bucket compared to museum fundraising.

The world of rare books is far more diffuse today than it was several generations ago. In those days many of the leading collectors constituted a community, centered in the cities of the Northeast, with branches in Chicago and on the West Coast, who often knew each other, and who dealt with a fairly small pool of booksellers with open shops in big cities. Now collectors are spread all over the country, often suburban, with little or no contact with other collectors or libraries. They probably buy their books mainly from the specialist booksellers in their field, by catalogue or on-line, or at auctions. The dealers, who they may have met a few times at a book fair, or who they talk to on the telephone from time to time, are their main contact with the larger world of rare books. The major auction houses, despite their recent embarrassments, have continued to seize a large share of the high end of the market, often working directly with individuals who can remain anonymous by bidding on the telephone. As an illustration, the typical collector candidates for the Grolier Club these days are sponsored mainly by dealers because they seldom know either librarians or other collectors. Many collectors, in my experience, would love to be more involved in the book world. I think that the institutions that seek them out and convince them of the worthiness of their programs will be rewarded ? perhaps by books, but equally desirably, by support for programs.

At the same time, I think institutions should be alert to cultivate their relationships with the book trade. In the modern world of rare books, as I?ve suggested, the dealers are most often the ones who know both collectors and institutions, and can bring the two together. I think many dealers are willing to play this role. It certainly won?t be done by the auction houses, whose management has demonstrated very clearly that their only interest is the bottom line. (I don?t hold honorable employees of auction houses responsible for their bosses.)

Many dealers are also important collectors beyond simply accumulating inventory ? an undesirable form of collecting ? as Robert Barrie, Sr. said, "dealers are right half the time and the rest is what they call stock". Some have formed important collections as a business venture, with the goal of selling them en bloc, while others have simply acted as any book collector might, collecting for pleasure, often outside the area of their expertise. Since looking for books is, after all, what booksellers do with a majority of their time, some of the dealer-formed collections I know of are among the best in their field ? witness such a collection as André Jammes? early photography, sold at auction in London last year, or Barney Rosenthal?s wonderful collection of humanistic manuscripts with annotations, sold intact to Yale and celebrated in a superb exhibition catalogue written by him, or the extraordinary Hans P. Kraus collection on Sir Francis Drake, presented by him to the Library of Congress some years ago. Unfortunately some institutions have seen dealers as second-class citizens, untrustworthy or profiteering. Needless to say, I think this is a mistake. Most of the trade try hard to be good citizens of the book world. Blaming them for rising prices is shooting the messenger.

The modern rare book collector views special collections in a very different way than his predecessors. Operating in a market of scarcity created by the very success of the institutions, to some degree skeptical of their missions and commitment, and often isolated from the larger world of rare books, today?s collector needs to be convinced that libraries deserve their support. The institutions, for their part, should look beyond their traditional hope that collectors will give them their books, and try to engage them as supporters on a broader basis, while reaffirming their belief in the importance of the artifacts which are the basis of a common interest. Both collectors and special collections can benefit from a better understanding in the modern world of rare books.

Published in Collectors & Special Collections Three Talks (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 2002). Published here by permission of William S. Reese.

Published since 30 Nov 2009

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