Institutions Are Still Buying
UCSF collection details online
By Bruce McKinney
Recently I asked Terry Belanger, MacArthur fellow, full professor and Director of the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, about institutional buying and he encouraged me to contact a cross-section of institutional buyers for perspective. Their outlook is encouraging if sanguine. I spoke to Daniel De Simone, David Whitesell, Lynda Claassen, Doug Erickson, Martin Antonetti and Katherine Reagan, all of whom convey a commitment to continuing acquisitions although their budgets, prospects, logic and approaches differ substantially. They are all headed in the same direction although taking different paths. Mr. De Simone is Curator of the Rosenwald Collection at the Library of Congress; Mr. Whitesell, Curator of Books at the American Antiquarian Society; Ms. Claassen, Director, Mandeville Special Collections Library at the University of San Diego; Mr. Erickson, Head of Special Collections/College Archivist for the Watzek Library at Lewis & Clark College; Martin Antonetti, Curator of Rare Books at Smith College and Catherine Reagan, Curator of Rare Books & Manuscripts, Carl A. Kroch Library, Cornell University.
Lynda Claassen of UC San Diego, describes her department's funding as organized over a period of years and therefore less sensitive to upturns and downturns in the economy. For her the process is straightforward. A group of dealers she describes as "more than 25" [and always open to new participants], know the university collections and their acquisition emphases. These dealers offer vetted and appropriate material which is first considered within the rare book department and then, if deemed appropriate, submitted for review and acquisition. She is of course balancing faculty and department directives as well as considering the effort put forth by the dealers, all the while keeping a weather eye on her budget, which as it is consumed, is subject to replenishment at the end of the fiscal year. She views dealers as an extension of her department resources, periodically deaccessions duplicates and shares with them transaction proceeds for those items they can place. Hers is a collaborative approach and dealers an extension of her resources.
Daniel De Simone, Curator of the Rosenwald Collection at the Library of Congress tells a similar story. His acquisitions budget for early printed books has remained constant and he is constantly reading catalogues and considering specific proposals. He’s been doing this at the Library of Congress for more than 10 years and has developed a fine eye for the unusual. As is true for Ms. Classen he buys offered [as opposed to auction] material. As he explains it, I have to write a proposal and justification for material I want to acquire. Doing this for material at auction [at prices and outcomes unknown], just does not fit our methodology. Lest anyone feel he's leaving great material unconsidered, every day the library receives 10,000 communications. A portion lands in his in-box, the reading and consideration ongoing, never-ending. "I love my job." Does anyone doubt it?
Institutions Are Still Buying
Study what a collection holds for clues to what they'll buy
David Whitesell of the American Antiquarian Society tells a different story but the melody is familiar. The Society recently reaffirmed its acquisition budget for 2009 and David said he expects declining prices simply to convert into increasing acquisitions. The Society's goal and mandate is to acquire one example of every printed item produced in America before 1877. The AAS is the rock star of bibliographic ambition and has been both creative and aggressive in its acquisitions. It actively pursues donations, bids at both catalogued and uncatalogued auctions, acquires via dealer catalogs and private offers, buys on eBay and on listing sites. Mr. Whitesell also scours bookshops armed with hand held electronic access to AAS's full inventory. Once acquired, the material is catalogued and added to the reference resources it provides to institutions on a subscription basis.
Doug Erickson of Lewis & Clarke College also confirms their continuing commitment to acquire. "We receive dealer and auction catalogues every day and wake up every morning hopeful of finding something meaningful for the collection." Special Collections at the College are funded primarily from tuition rather than from endowment. Mr. Erickson explains that relationships with dealers are complex. "They are directly responsible for this institution receiving important collections as gifts from collectors. We buy on eBay and on listing sites but our commitment to dealers is enduring."
Martin Antonetti, Curator of Rare Books at Smith College, is also steadily acquiring, this last year around 100 items, with an average value of just over $1000. Endowment has declined with the stock market and he is adjusting. He reads the steady flow of dealer catalogues, reviews offers and receives gifts to the collection.
Katherine Reagan, Curator of Rare Books & Manuscripts at the Carl A. Krock Library at Cornell referred me to a recent article by Gwen Glazer in the CU Chronicle Online, "Facing the same budgetary challenges as the university in the coming year, Cornell University Library will reduce acquisitions of library materials for fiscal year 2010. Cuts will be made in the materials budget, which supports the acquisition of books, subscriptions to journals, access to online databases, purchase of DVDs and other audiovisual items, rare and historic collections, and more."
In the downturn Ms. Reagan is also continuing to buy, seeking value in the purchase of newer collecting areas through relationships with a wide range of dealers. She also cites the importance of partnerships with collectors. Over time, the generosity of individual collectors has been essential to building the University collections. "They have the knowledge, passion and determination to pursue very focused material in ways that are beyond our capacities, in terms of the time it takes to assemble great collections. We can support and appreciate collectors and hope that in time they may view Cornell as an attractive home for their achievements." The University has received many important gifts over the years.
George Fox, eminence grise of PBA [Pacific Book Auctions], when recently asked about institutional buying at auction, said "their interest continues unabated. You can not sell them what they don't want but neither can you hold them back when they are determined to buy. Their interest never diminishes although their budgets go up and down." In the Bay Area he mentioned both Stanford and UC Berkeley as continuing to bid and acquire through the downturn.
Taken together, the picture that emerges is of a practical and determined group that will support their traditional sources, in some cases sell or trade duplicates, work with collectors toward the prospect, if not the promise, of meaningful gifts and in some cases, alter buying patterns to bid and buy on eBay and at traditional auctions. Taken together, as Terry Belanger pointed out, they are playing an important role in stabilizing the market simply by continuing to buy.