May 2009 | Nicholas Basbanes

San Francisco Earthquake

On a gorgeous spring morning when I would much rather be writing about a delightful trip to Southern California to give the Samuel Lazerow Lecture at UCLA--a whirlwind visit to the West Coast that included some productive time in the library of the Getty Research Institute--I find myself gazing north of Los Angeles to that magical City by the Bay, and thinking about a plan that is afoot to cherry pick treasures from the Gleason Library of the University of San Francisco, and sell them off for hard cash.

I write about this now, because there is time to mobilize a response. Many of you, I am sure, have heard about the sleazy attempt reported in January by Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., to sell off, lock stock and barrel, an extensive collection of six thousand modern art pieces that had been donated in good faith to the institution over many years by a number of benefactors.

Apparently taking a cue from this sort of cultural myopia, the president of the University of San Francisco, the Rev. Stephen Privett S.J., has, according to a nicely done article in the student newspaper, begun to sift "through a range of university assets" for purposes of "compiling a list of items that may be expendable in an economic emergency."

Tops on  Father Privett's hit list are precious materials housed in the Donahue Rare Book Room of the Gleeson Library, the pride and joy of the late William J. Moynihan, S.J., a remarkable bookman known in his time as the "penniless Medici of San Francisco" for having established one of the most distinguished institutional book collections in Northern California, and doing it with little more than irresistible Irish charm, dedication, and gentle persuasion. A perfectly lovely man--I had the great pleasure to interview and write about him in "A Gentle Madness"--Father Moynihan was also responsible for having established in 1968 the Sir Thomas More Medal for Book Collecting, the most prestigious award of its kind in the world.

Of course "compiling a list" is one thing, and actually selling stuff is another. Father Privett's backpedaling notwithstanding--he withered a bit under questioning by the student reporter, Nicholas Mukhan, by insisting that "we are not selling anything right now" from the library--that caveat does not include the set of Albrecht Durer prints that USF had already consigned to Bonham's Auction Gallery, and which were offered for sale on May 11. 

This report, needless to say, has occasioned a flurry of comments on the ExLibris site; those interested in learning more should take a look, and follow the thread, which takes in the whole phenomenon of institutions finding every excuse imaginable to sell off cultural treasures entrusted to their care, including discussion of another fire sale going on now at the Wilmington Free Library in Delaware for purposes of fixing a leaky roof and installing new air conditioning.

But the USF situation, I have to say, is the one that rankles me the most. You know you're in trouble when you read a quote like this: "Father Privett also questioned how many students visit the Rare Book Room."  When an administrator starts to justify his thinking by suggesting that special collections are a luxury that nobody is using, guess what, you're already on the slippery slope. He should be reminded that this material was solicited and given to USF with the explicit expectation that the university would be a worthy custodian--and we can be sure that it was accepted by this noble Jesuit institution on those very terms.

If you have thoughts on this matter, and would like to express them, you can write USF President Stephen Privett at or Library Dean Tyrone Cannon at I'm sure they would love to hear from you.