A Letter from America X: The Library of Congress Rare Book Forum ( December/Jan.)

From the Antiquarian Book Review

The Library of Congress has just published a small work entitled Collectors & Special Collections  Three Talks, putting into print the three main addresses given at the Library’s first Rare Book Forum, held there under the sponsorship of the Center for the Book and the Rare Book and Special Collections department of the Library in April, 2001. The theme of the forum was the relationship of private collectors of rare books and public institutions over the years. Although not so stated in the title, this might well have been qualified as "in the United States" as far as the content of the lectures. The three papers were "Elective Affinities: Private Collectors and Special Collections in Libraries," by Alice D. Schreyer of the University of Chicago, "Will the Book Collector of Today be the Donor of Tomorrow," by the well-known Cleveland collector Robert H. Jackson, and "What Have You Done for Me Lately? Collectors and Institutions in Modern Times," by (my devoted readers may have already guessed) myself. This handsome octavo in stiff wrappers is available from [ Leslie we need to e-mail John Cole and get details of where it can be ordered]. Alice Schreyer’s talk was also issued separately by the University of Chicago in a striking pamphlet format (just to add a proper air of bibliographical confusion, this separate version preceded the official LC format, but the wheels of government turn slowly, as anyone who sells a book to the Library of Congress will discover).

I will not characterize my fellow speaker’ talks beyond saying that they were excellent, because I don’t want to misrepresent their thoughts in précis. I do think they were both somewhat more optimistic about the potential for a warm and donation-filled future between collectors and libraries than I am. Schreyer, who concentrated on the history of private library donors, was certainly right in seeing a golden age in the early and middle parts of the twentieth century. Here is a quick summary of part of what I had to say what I had to say (but you really need to buy the pamphlet!).

American collectors and libraries had a lot of reasons to get along in the immediate post-World War II era. The two big ones were plenty of supply and high tax rates. In retrospect, there were more books that we would consider "rare" afloat in the market in this period than any point since the Napoleonic Wars. The destruction and impoverishment of Europe greatly accelerated the already rapid trans-Atlantic flight of cultural treasures to the United States . The lucky collectors and enterprising curators of those days were able to build wonderful collections at what today seem laughably low prices. As prices rose, a wealthy collector thinking of disposing of their books could contemplate large capital gains tax and worse income tax. Donation was the easy, even profitable solution, with the gratitude of alma mater or other library recipient thrown in. it was having ones cake and eating it too. And there were always plenty more books out there, or so it seemed.

Today, most of the rare and valuable books of the world are in institutions. Those of us who would like to acquire them, collectors, dealers, and institutions alike, live in a market of extreme scarcity. This alone is discouraging to the collecting of books – it is no fun to set your sights on something you’ll never get. Many collectors, as they contemplate this, resolve that their books will stay in play, so to speak, honoring the dictum of Robert Hoe that his books should be sold to give others the pleasure they gave him. Tax considerations still persuade some collectors to donate, but the incremental rates and corresponding benefit are much lower. At the same time, much higher prices have made more collectors, by necessity, consider their holdings capital assets, whether they collected with an eye toward "investment’ or not. All of these factors work against donation.

Far more important, I do not think that collectors and librarians always share the common vision they did several generations ago, when books and learning were seen as synonymous. Progressive waves of technology have vastly reduced the book as the sole source of text. As a result, many in libraries have questioned the role of printed material as an artifact worth preserving. This has led to some ugly incidents of poor stewardship, as chronicled by Mr. Nicholson Baker in Doublefold. Of course these attitudes are far from universal, and many institutions have done an exemplary job of preserving their printed collections. Nor should we always blame librarians; more often than not the pressure to "rationalize" collections (one of those ominous Big Brother terms), comes from administrators on high who could care less about us silly book-lovers. Whoever is responsible, the bottom line is that many collectors today do not trust institutions to care for their books. Collectors may or may not know much about the content of their books (and, contrary to the usual canard, in my experience they usually know a lot), but they are universally concerned with the artifacts themselves. If they have doubts about library policy, they will stay away.

Some of the forward looking rare book libraries have realized that the future is about bringing more people into special collections. At the same time, it may be better for all if institutions who doubt the value of printed works get out of the special collections business if they cannot make the books usable and useful or care for them properly. In the current market they are bound to find a happy home. Collectors will still be donors and supporters – but they will increasingly want to see genuine commitment from the entire institution before they donate.

– William S. Reese