Food for Thought when "Eating the Seed Corn"

Last Monday, October 5, 2009, Terry Belanger, founder of Rare Book School, gave a talk to the Book Club of California, a group which recently allowed the likes of me to become a new member. I was lucky enough to attend the event, held at the lovely University Club in San Francisco. The title of Belanger's talk was "Eating the Seed Corn: Reflections on Institutional Sales of Rare Books".

Given the controversy over the University of San Francisco's recent sale of a few of its treasures from the Gleeson Library, including a Durer print of St. Jerome -- the patron saint of libraries -- I looked forward to what Terry Belanger had to say and figured that since he was speaking in San Francisco he would almost certainly bring up recent events.

Belanger's speech served a lot of food for thought to donors, to institutions, to collectors/potential donors, and even to us antiquarian booksellers.

The talk was not so much a diatribe against USF specifically as it was an acknowledgment that deaccessioning happens but that it needn't have happened the way it did at USF. Belanger covered some of the problems of bequests and donors and libraries and of the income to be derived from selling deaccessioned materials.

Here are some guidelines he recommended institutions take into consideration when they are faced with deaccessioning books:

* If multiple copies are owned, the inferior, not the superior, copy will be sold.
* The institution needs to honor the conditions of bequests. Failure to do so jeopardizes the trust of donors in making future bequests to any and all institutions.
* If books must be sold, the should be sold in a way that will realize the highest possible price.
* Association copies and those containing manuscript material will be retained.
* Deaccessioning could emphasize out-of-scope material.
* There should be advance, public disclosure of proposed deaccessioning.

Two other lists were covered by Belanger, which, if my notes are correct (sorry, but that's unclear at this point -- any errors are mine), came from the New York Public Library. The nine kinds of deaccessioning deserve mention here:

1. The Deaccession Nugatory (getting rid of ephemeral materials)
2. The Deaccession Rapacious (wartime plunder)
3. The Deaccession Inadvertent (materials deaccessioned as worthless about which later generations think differently)
4. The Deaccession Censorious
5. The Deaccession Covert
6. The Deaccession Incendiary (of. Alexandria)
7. The Deaccession Extraneous
8. The Deaccession Duplicative
9. The Deaccession Remunerative

The last list was of factors institutions should consider when deaccessioning books:

1. Institutional goals
2. Crown Jewel aspects: great treasures need constant display
3. Integrity of bibliographical records: is the item listed as yours in a catalog or catalogs distributed throughout the world?
4. Preservation: the present physical condition of the item; the cost of preserving it; the cost of making it saleable
5. Security problems
6. Legal matters: get them straight
7. Original donor's intentions
8. Public relations
9. An accession by definition makes something accessible; it follows that a deaccession does the reverse.

If someone who has access to the President of USF could courteously let him know about these ideas, he might see to it that, from this point forward, the university stops eating the "seed corn" and starts understanding that libraries and the books they hold provide the intellectual nourishment that a good university like USF purports to serve its students.

See you in the stacks!