By DANIEL DE SIMONE
The relationship between libraries and private collectors of rare books was the subject of the first Library of Congress Rare Book Forum, held April 4.
The Rare Book and Special Collection Division and the Center for the Book have established this new series based on a program organized by the center and sponsored by Mrs. Charles Engelhardt in the 1980s. This new series is designed to address current issues important to the rare book community.
Nearly 200 private collectors, book sellers and librarians attended the first program, "Private Collectors and Special Collections Libraries." Interest in the topic was reflected in the fact that some librarians traveled great distances to attend, and many prominent private collectors and rare book sellers also participated.
The Librarian of Congress opened the program by expressing his hope that this new series would stimulate discussion and generate an active relationship among all members of the rare book world. He focused on the important role played by private collectors in building library collections and preserving important historical and literary artifacts for future generations. The Librarian spoke of the "collector's instinct," how it was developed and how, over time, it became refined and focused. He gave examples from his own life and suggested that collection-building was one of mankind's most basic urges. Many of these collections have benefited libraries and museums. Looking at the development of the Library of Congress holdings, he mentioned a few of the extraordinary collections built by individuals. The most notable private collection, acquired by the Library in 1815, was the personal library of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson collected broadly and in great depth and his collecting philosophy is the basis for the Library's acquisitions policies.
Following introductions by John Y. Cole, director of the Center for the Book, and Mark Dimunation, chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, the first speaker of the morning was Alice Schreyer, curator of Special Collections at the University of Chicago. Ms. Schreyer spoke on "Elective Affinities: Private Collectors and Special Collections in Libraries."
Her remarks set the tone for the entire forum by outlining the historical relationship between collectors and libraries. Ms. Schreyer focused on the years 1890 to the present, which she divided into three eras. The first was the formative period from 1890 to the end of the 1930s, when great wealth was being converted into cultural monuments across America. Men such as Pierpont Morgan (Morgan Library in New York City), Henry Edwards Huntington (Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif.) and Henry Clay Folger (Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.) were forming huge libraries and constructing palaces to house their collections. Others from the same period were building collections and donating them to university libraries. During this period the first special-collections departments were conceived, and private collectors were courted by university administrators eager to build giant research collections.
After World War II, the second period Ms. Schreyer examines, the nature of the private collector changed, as did the institution to which he or she was so inextricably connected. The period saw the rise of the educated individual as collector and philanthropist. The modern collector had more specialized knowledge and collecting focus. Lessing J. Rosenwald, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg, Arthur Houghton, William Scheide, Tracy W. McGregor and J.K. Lilly formed significant collections that were donated, becoming part of the foundation on which university libraries built their special-collection programs. Major collectors were cultivated by institutions, and librarians were dedicated to developing programs and exhibitions that reflected the collections they were receiving. At the same time, this period saw the rise of the special collections librarian, who developed a role as collection-builder independent of the private collector. In time librarians and collectors sometimes became competitors, and by the 1970s institutions became the most dominant force in the book market. Special-collection librarians were also becoming more dependent on the growing demands of the institutions in which they worked. As their responsibilities evolved, the administration and integration of the collections became the focus of their job. Consequently, the goals of private collectors and special-collection librarians began to diverge.
The third period Ms. Schreyer discussed is the current one. The contemporary special collections department is, in most cases, a complex organization dedicated to serving its readers and ensuring the accessability of its collections. The task of the librarian or curator is no longer focused on collection development but on information input and retrieval. Formerly, the successful cultivation of collectors by rare book staff entailed an intimacy with books, usually in a setting inviting to private collectors. But the modern library complex does not conform to this model, making it more difficult for the special-collection librarian to reach out to the private collecting community. According to Ms. Schreyer, the modern library, with its special collections division dedicated to information, has alienated the private collector at the very time when the collector has become the dominant force in the formation of rare book collections.
Yet given this new reality, Ms. Schreyer believes that not all collectors have given up on special collections departments. She cites the enormous gift of the Carter Burden Collection of first editions of modern American authors to the Morgan Library and Lloyd Cotsens's unparalleled gift of his children's literature collection to Princeton. She said that at the University of Chicago there is still a strong interest in the library by private collectors, and she encouraged many of the collectors in the audience to take another look at their local special collection libraries.
She concluded by quoting from an article written by Randolph Adams in the 1950 edition of the New Colophon called, "How Shall I Leave My Books to a Library?" This article addressed some of the concerns of collectors about donating books to special collections libraries and included a list of questions a collector should ask himself before making a gift: "Which library? Are you satisfied that the library understands what you are giving it? What is the record of that library with respect to such gifts? What are you doing to be sure that your books will be kept in the same condition they are now in? Are you making conditions about the disposal of duplicates, and are you sure that anyone on the staff of the library of your choice knows a duplicate when he sees one? Do you know that the library of your choice will service your books with due regard to bibliographical scholarship, physical care and the needs of intelligent readers? What provision is the library making for the expansion, growth and evolution of your collections?"
Similarly, libraries must ask themselves questions when discussing a gift from a private collector. Will the proposed gift support the institution's programs or curriculum? Will it add to or create strength to given collections? Will it stimulate research or help recruit new staff? What are the preservation consequences of the collection? Will the gift come with supplementary funds? Are the expectations of the donor reasonable?
William Reese, president of the William Reese Co., picked up where Ms. Schreyer left off, with "What Have You Done for Me Lately? Collectors and Institutions in Modern Times." Mr. Reese, a well-known book seller from New Haven, Conn., analyzed the relationship between collectors and libraries through the changing patterns in the book market. Over the past few decades private collectors have once again come to dominate the market. Large and diverse collections were being formed outside normal institutional frameworks, and as libraries continued to focus on organization rather than collection development, fewer and fewer collectors were interacting with library specialists.
Mr. Reese told how diminishing budgets, escalating prices and increasing administrative responsibilities caused many librarians to loose touch with both the market and those who participated in it. In addition, may institutions changed the emphasis of their outreach programs and began tapping collectors for money rather than for their collections. As the relationship between the two groups began to wither, many collectors simply lost interest in dealing with institutions. Simultaneously, another change was taking place. The book trade and the auction houses were taking the responsibility of educating the new collectors who were entering the market. This vital role of education, once the hallmark of many special collections libraries, had been abandoned to the book trade, a group eager to cultivate new customers by providing guidance and other assistance in the formation of collections.
The most provocative speaker of the morning was Robert Jackson, a noted private collector from Cleveland, who took some of Mr. Reese's themes and placed them in personal context.
In "Will the Collectors of Today Be the Donors of Tomorrow?," Mr. Jackson explained his own experience as a collector and how, over the many years he has collected books, it was only recently that he began to interact with special collections librarians. For Mr. Jackson, it was the rare book trade that nurtured his interest, engaged his imagination and whetted his appetite to build his collections. One would have thought that special collections librarians would have wanted to seek out high-profile collectors like Mr. Jackson, but in his many years in the field that has rarely happened, he said. Special collections librarians must dedicate more time and effort in reaching out to collectors and educating them on the benefits of special collections programs if the tradition of private collectors donating their books to institutions is to continue.
Mr. Jackson then discussed who future book collectors would be and what they would be collecting. He said that younger people, more comfortable with computers than rare books, will need greater attention and more guidance if they are to become familiar with and passionate about rare books..
Mr. Diminuation was the moderator of the panel discussion, and he began by allowing each panelist to make a brief statement. The panelists were Selby Kiffer, senior vice president of Sotheby's, Merrily E. Taylor, university librarian of Brown University, and two private collectors, Edmond Lincoln of New York and John Warnock of San Jose.
Mr. Kiffer and Ms. Taylor reflected the institutional perspectives they represented. Mr. Kiffer talked about the auction houses and their interactions with collectors, especially those selling books. For him, the job of Sotheby's was to represent the seller and to obtain the highest price for the collection, whether the buyer was another collector, a dealer or an institution.
Merrily Taylor spoke about Brown's long history with book collectors and how the university's collections were formed by both gift and purchase. Today, much of her energy is focused on finding the resources to support the special collections staff. She said it was hard to overestimate the competition within institutions for resources.
Like Ms. Schreyer, Ms. Taylor said her staff in special collections had excellent relations with collectors.
The two remaining members of the panel differed sharply from each other in their views. Edmond Lincoln has built a collection of architecture books, books on ornamentation and engraving, and antiquarian bibliography over the past 30 years. He spoke about his long association with the Winterthur Museum Library. As a high school student, Mr. Lincoln volunteered in the library and became close to Frank Somers, the noted curator of rare books. He learned about the library's collections, the history of printing and book illustration, and most important, he learned about the vital function special collections libraries serve in the scholarly community. Because of his experience, he has maintained close ties with Winterthur and is active on one of its boards. His relations with libraries and librarians are therefore quite strong. He is an active donor and advocate of informed giving by collectors to special collections libraries.
John Warnock became a collector when he realized that the great books of science and technology could actually be purchased. Fortunately for him, he earned enough to build a library of books by Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Locke and other influential Western European innovators. Although highly educated, he had never set foot in a rare book library and had never had a conversation with a special collections librarian. The realization of how fortunate he was led him to apply his own technical skills to making facsimiles of the great books of Western civilization available to a general public. He created a company called Octavo to produce digitally formatted reproductions of books from his own library and from the collections of the Library of Congress, the Folger Library and other institutions.
Mr. Warnock's view of libraries and their special collections divisions was not as generous as Mr. Lincoln's. He was of the opinion that libraries consumed books, but were loath to make them available. He was also extremely concerned that if he gave his books away they would be lost, mistreated or even sold as duplicates.
As a final remark, Mr. Cole announced that the speeches of the morning session would be published by the Center for the Book. Plans for the next Rare Book Forum in October were announced (subject to be determined), and the forum scheduled for April 2002 will commemorate the 50th anniversary of Lessing J. Rosenwald's gift of the Giant Bible of Mainz to the Library of Congress, with Christopher de Hamel of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, as the main speaker.
Mr. Simone is curator of the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection in the Library of Congress.