USF: Collecting Dust
By Bruce McKinney
Ten years ago the changing functionality of libraries was, to many, already clear. Libraries would become electronic information gatherers and redistributors and their relationship to the printed word atrophy and decline. Libraries, the repository of books, would become the repository of information. The book, as storage and redistribution element, would be replaced by the database and, in time, the full text search. Libraries, the stodgy backwater of the intellectual revolution, would soon become its Omaha Beach. Five years ago sixty percent of librarians we surveyed, when asked whether the primary focus of the library was to provide information or provide books, stipulated information over books. This past year, in answer to the same question, information now held a 70 - 30 edge. A few years hence it will be 80%, then 90%.
Fast forward to The University of San Francisco in the spring of 2009 where change, reality and economic imperative recently converged on the Fulton Street campus of this Jesuit University. In May, for the second time in less than 3 years, material housed in the Donohue Rare Book Room was sold to raise cash. The first sale was of a painting removed from the rare book room walls that Bonhams & Butterfields sold at auction in December 2006 for $900,000. In returning to the auction rooms recently to again raise funds, this time to sell Durer prints, the university stepped into a minefield of anger and anxiety that has been building for some time. For those who predicted the decline of the traditional library a decade ago and long since decamped to the once-thought-to-be-safe confines of the rare book room, in the recent sale of printed material they see siege engines in the University's approach.
The reaction of three of the five communities intertwined with the rare book room has been one of almost absolute disgust and opprobrium. Staff and faculty, donors and volunteer support, and rare book dealers all feel betrayed because they believe such material is to be appreciated, treasured and absolutely retained. The other communities, the students and public, do not seem to much care.
What are the arguments?
Bill Reese, the distinguished American bookdealer, frames the issue for traditionalists this way.
"The sale of material from the Gleeson Library is a tragedy of the first order and a perfect example of what can happen when bottom-line philistines in administration find ways to squeeze money out of collections built up by the devoted effort of many people over a long period of time."
He then goes on to add,
"When an institution takes a collection in trust, there is a moral obligation involved. Just because donors were too trusting to think that their trust would be violated doesn't make it morally right, even if it is legally so."
USF: Collecting Dust
William J. Monihan, collector of collectors
Peter Stansky, Frances and Charles Field Professor of History Emeritus, Stanford University, in a message to the head of the university wrote,
"In my view, to diminish the collection [by selling material] not only violates the faith of those who have donated, as I have in a minor way, but verges toward vandalism and philistinism."
Terry Belanger, University Professor, Honorary Curator of Special Collections and Director of the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, visits the consequences such sales may have.
"I think a central point here is what actions like those taken by Father Privett [President of the University] do to future gift-giving - not only to USF, but books generally to institutions generally. I suspect that a great many more donors than is now the case will begin to add disposition conditions to their gifts to institutions [e.g. if at any time in the future the institution no longer wishes to undertake care of my gift then it is to be sold at auction for the benefit of the Red Cross/SPCA, home for unwed mothers [choose one]."
What has been a gentleman's club of understandings and courtesy could become a dogfight over regulations and requirements.
An assessment of the Donohue Rare Book Room, issued several weeks after the recent sale, made essentially the same points. Issued by two well-placed and well-regarded rare book library advocates, Susan M. Allen and Mark Dimunation, the report damns the University for shortsightedness, raises ethical concerns and openly questions the appropriateness of future gifts to an institution that is not demonstrating a commitment to maintaining its collections.
At the center of this maelstrom stands Father Stephen A. Privett, current President of the University of San Francisco and recently appointed to a third 5-year term. He is both responsible for his institution and responsible to a 42-member Board of Directors. Perhaps the structure of a Jesuit institution affords him a bit more latitude than the typical university president, where powerful faculty senates, boards, alumni and contributors can tie up virtually any controversial action forever. While responsible to those above him, it does appear Father Privett was able to act without consulting the various constituencies below or outside of his authority that usually tie a university president's hands. He acted, and his failure to consult these constituencies led to even greater resentment by those who felt left out of the process.
The rare book staff and supporters of the library in general, not just at San Francisco, but at libraries across the land, are deeply troubled. They realize that once material locked in the security of institutional collections is opened to public bidding, it may be lost forever. That is a nightmare of the first order to those who have devoted their lives to the preservation of cherished rare books. Add to this the fear that this may be just the tip of the iceberg, and their sharp, even harsh criticism becomes understandable.
Additionally, the various constituencies each have their own particular concerns. For those who have built their careers in the rare book rooms, there is the obvious concern about job security and the very purpose of their lives. The closing of a rare book room may take not only their livelihood, but their identity as well. The same may be said for the booksellers who supply the rare book rooms. Some may see them simply as merchants, but their role is much more complex than that. Dealers do more than provide books. They build collections. They frequently provide the research and intellectual perspective that determines what belongs in a collection. Oftentimes, they even steer donors to the library, for they are the ones who know the collectors. What they do may seem easy, but it is not. It's valuable, important and often under appreciated.
USF: Collecting Dust
The Donohue: Facilities in search of an audience
If these constituencies are difficult to deal with, then think about the donors. These are people who give their valuable collections and a piece of their identities to libraries, believing only that the library will appreciate their books as much as they do, and preserve their collection, and the memory of its donor, in perpetuity. Instead, they find their gift is as perpetual as a Hong Kong or old English burial. Alas poor Yorick. Such a donor may feel used or cheated. From a practical standpoint, who will give so freely of himself in the future if they believe this perpetual gift may soon be converted to short-term cash?
Of course, the issues raised here go way beyond the University of San Francisco. What happens to the rare book room at one relatively small Jesuit institution does not matter that much to those outside the confines of its small rare book community. Nonetheless, this has touched off a firestorm. The University of San Francisco, unwittingly and unwillingly, has become a test case for the role of rare book libraries in the 21st century. This is an uncomfortable place to be, and the university is trying its best to extricate itself from the position. The University has responded by saying the controversy is essentially a misunderstanding. Perhaps they are right, but the issues the case has raised will not go away, and we shall return to them as soon as we explain the University's position, and why they believe far more has been made of their particular case than it warrants.
Most have seen San Francisco's action as a raid on the rare book room to raise cash. In difficult times such as these, some may find this understandable, others inexcusable, but this is a decision many institutions are likely to confront in the days ahead, as the need for cash rises and the role of libraries changes. However, officials at the University of San Francisco say this is an inaccurate portrayal of their particular case. Rather than a signal event in the relationship between university and library that threatens the very existence of the rare book room, San Francisco sees this as a small dispersal necessary to save the library. Gary McDonald, AVP of Communications and Public Affairs at San Francisco, explains the sequence of events this way: "The room that currently houses the collection is inadequate: it does not offer proper controls for humidity, temperature, lighting or protection from fire. Expensive upgrades are necessary to ensure the collection's long-term survival."
The University determined that the upgrades necessary to preserve the collection would cost $1.3 million. Unwilling to impose these costs on students through higher tuition or fees, President Privett met with the Gleeson Library Associates [Friends of the Library] to ask for help in raising the funds, but a year later, none has been raised. The University still hopes someone will come forward with a generous gift, "but with no real prospects for raising the money, USF made the difficult decision to sell a handful of objects (out of a collection of approximately 20,000 items) from the rare book room to generate the funds necessary to protect the collection at large. Every penny realized from their sale will be invested in the necessary upgrades. None of the money is going to the university's general operating budget."
Mr. McDonald concludes his written response by asking, "What purpose is served if USF owns a rare book but does not care for it properly? The real issue is the university's determination to provide the necessary long-term care of this precious asset so that it can be enjoyed by generations to come."
USF: Collecting Dust
Columbia: As busy as it gets
This explanation, if accepted, may quell the controversy swirling around USF. Perhaps a one-time sale of a few items will resolve their issues and enable the Gleeson to preserve the rest of their books for generations to come. Time will tell. However, this solution is unlikely to resolve the issues facing libraries in general, and rare book rooms in particular. San Francisco may prove to be the exception rather than the test, but the issue of the viability of the rare book library is likely to play itself out many times in the years ahead. This is a far bigger issue than what happens at the University of San Francisco, and it is an issue other libraries must be ready to handle before it is thrust upon them unprepared.
Within educational institutions today, economic reality, and the current economic downturn in particular, is focusing attention on the library because information distribution is experiencing quantum leaps in efficiency while decentralizing access and diminishing the library's place in it. Succinctly stated, information is ever more important while the library's physical role and presence in the process is declining. Libraries are being repurposed and find themselves on the fault lines of fast evolving change.
Their investments in library electronics are increasing even as their audiences' expectations are changing and many of their traditional roles and functions declining. They are connecting to the world, incorporating more databases, adding their voices to the push for more, faster and broader distributed electronic access and discovering that faster distributed services have an absolute price: reduced in person use in the library including declining interest and use of special collections. Even the college library's bread and butter - "on reserve at the library" readings - are increasingly available electronically. Taken together, these revolutionary changes, higher costs and reduced traffic are leading institutions to reevaluate the library's mission, shifting budget to technology at the expense of less-used services and sections. To all this the economic downturn adds the complex calculus of too few dollars at the very moment more is needed. It is in fact a rare and urgent moment.
To maintain their budgeting priority within the library's general allocations, rare book rooms and special collections at colleges and universities are responding, as is the case at Columbia University's Rare Book & Manuscript Library [the RBML], by working to increase traffic and involvement by integrating rare book materials into course curricula where possible. But Columbia has an extraordinary rare book library; more than 500,000 printed books and 14 miles of manuscripts, personal papers and records. Most universities have much less. The University of San Francisco has 20,000 items, 4% of Columbia's elephantine number. On a recent visit to Columbia, I was permitted to count the number of persons signing in to the rare book library's daily register. On busy summer days it reaches 18, on winter days it's closer to 8. At NYU, at the other end of Manhattan, the rare book room has 4 or 5 visitors a day year round. At USF, it is about 1 a day. Considering the cost of staff and fixed expenses it is easy to see allocated overheads per visit running from $350 per guest at Columbia to over a $1,000 at the Donohue Rare Book Room. Such services are, for some institutions, already a luxury and prospects for further declines in use and support suggest a growing imbalance between needed investment and return. This is a sorry situation but more a comment on our culture than a statement about rare books or the institutions that house them.
USF: Collecting Dust
GLA: the prestigious Sir Thomas More Medal
Still, the numbers do not lie. Rare book collections are expensive to maintain, and little used. What use they do receive is rarely by the student body, which pays the bulk of university fees. With annual tuition and expenses chasing $50,000 at some private colleges, and at historic highs at state universities, there is little more blood to be drawn from this stone. Endowments have been decimated by the collapse of the stock and real estate markets. Alumni and other contributors are maxed out as a result of the recession, and in the case of state schools, taxpayers are not likely to assent to being taxed further to support facilities that see limited use. The University of San Francisco may have resolved its immediate problem with a small, one-time sale, but its library, and rare book room in particular, will remain an ongoing and growing expense, even as usage continues to drop. The heaters, air conditioners, dehumidifiers and lights will continue to draw power as energy costs rise, and competent staff, security, maintenance and insurance will not come cheaply. In time, recent upgrades will deteriorate and require renewed capital investments. USF, as a Jesuit university, may be the exception in having greater access to funding that does not come tied with strings, but other schools, facing budgetary shortfalls across the board, will be forced to justify their expenditures on a cost-benefit basis. Arguments based on noble concepts, such as preservation of history, through rarely used documents, are not likely to carry the day over immediate needs of a university, such as professors, classrooms, and laboratories. This may be shortsighted, but libraries will have to deal with the world as it is, not as it ideally should be.
One visitor a day, three a day, five a day... These are the telling numbers. When the number of people riding trains fell to small numbers, the passenger railways disappeared. When the number of visitors patronizing shops on Main Street fell to small numbers, the shops were shuttered. Each had its defenders, who believed the fall of such institutions would signal the death knell of our culture. Attempts were made to artificially salvage these institutions even as they became economically nonviable. This only served to delay the day of reckoning. Survival of the libraries and rare book rooms to see the next century will not result from even the strongest, most principled of arguments. They will only survive if these institutions continue to serve a need in a world where most of the information within their books can be accessed more easily from the screen of a computer at home. This may sound harsh or crass, and perhaps it is, but reality is often harsh and crass. It is important for libraries to reposition and repurpose themselves to fit the reality of a changing world if they are to avoid the fate of other institutions that were unable to adapt to changing times.
What changes might we see? University collections are often the casual accumulations of valuable material that would be better organized and aggregated in other institutions' collections. But such material tends to be land-locked by donation into the places that donors choose rather than left to skilled librarians and administrators to decide where and how to aggregate. Over the next 25 years, institutional collections are going to be shifted to other institutions to create greater concentrations by subject and region. Along the way, perhaps half of all special collections will atrophy from disuse, be sold or traded. Wherever these collections are, representative examples will be accessible online to the scholar and the curious. They will fulfill a greater need and achieve a greater good and in so doing hew more closely to the line of original and better intent to do the greatest good for the greatest number.
Some people will not welcome such change, or any change at all. We do not raise this point out of a desire to see the libraries become different. We raise it from the Darwinian perspective that institutions must adapt or die. We prefer the former. Technology has hit this earth like a giant meteor, and libraries can either face this changing environment as lumbering dinosaurs or become swift, compact mammals. This is neither good nor bad. As Joe Friday might say, "these are just the facts, ma'am."
Writer's Note: Based on the explanation provided, the university has, without reservation, committed itself to maintaining the Donohue Rare Book Room. Such rooms and departments elsewhere will close for all the many reasons mentioned in this article: declining interest, rising cost and better [less expensive and more useful] ways of accessing the full texts online. The Donohue will be among the survivors and may in time wish it wasn't.
For letters to the editor from Bill Reese and Wally Jansen of the Gleeson Library Associates, click here.