Collecting Rare Books

Today's class was all about collecting rare books for special collections. There was in interesting article drawn from an interview with Thomas Staley, the director of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Austin, Texas. The article addresses Staley’s success as the director of the Ransom center which comes from Staley’s focused acquisition policy. Staley aggressively seeks out and purchases the manuscript archives of modern authors.

According to Staley, he wants to create THE humanities archive for ‘modern’ authors. The idea that with one stop, everything a researcher needs will be available to them, the specific collection, and all relevant collections, in one single location, a special collection Walmart if you will. This is part of a Texan mindset of bigger, better, best. However, Staley doesn’t address the issue that if collections were digitized then all collections would be available to any researcher from a single location, the internet!

Staley doesn’t even begin this conversation because he is opposed to the idea of mass digitization. He clings to the physicality of the objects as an important part of their significance. And he’s not wrong. A digital representation is just a representation, it’s not the object.

However, it’s not like humanities scholars can really afford to go to a far off location, or even a short distance, and complete the protracted amount of time in a research center that humanities scholarship requires. The funding just isn’t available for humanities scholars. These scholars, especially the newbies, rely on digital representations to help them figure out where they should spend their limited resources for doing their research. A repository like the Ransom Center needs to have a representative digital collection or nearly every collection should have a detailed finding aid available online.

When it comes to developing a collection policy the American Heritage Center guidelines lay out an ideal path. Their plan is in part a response to the entire lack of planning that they had to begin with and the necessity of addressing their mistakes in order to move for word successfully.

The AHC’s Guidelines summed up: 1) Know your own collections strengths, what have you got and why? 2) Once you've accepted a collection you have the responsibility to preserve it, ensure access to it, protect the privacy of individuals mentioned in it, deaccession it if it no longer fits the purpose of the institution, protect copyrighted material in the collection, and keep all legal records pertaining to the collection.

In class we addressed collectors, since most special collections acquire their collections from collectors. So, how do collectors see the market? Currently they feel that they have less money to spend, are facing a greater supply is in the market place, and the majority of it is overvalued (cost v value). This has caused some collectors to shift the emphasis of their collection based on availability and pricing of objects.

We discussed how for collectors, collecting is highly personal and that a collection is a form of personal expression. So when securing the donation of a collection, a curator needs to develop a relationship with the collector. On the other side of the issue though, as a curator your interest in a collection is going to be at odds with the collectors (most likely), because you will want to ensure that your organization is gaining all requisite intellectual property rights (consult WATCH) and the ability to deaccession parts or the whole of the collection (in the very far future). Obviously if you are trying to bring in a collection you don’t anticipate getting rid of it, but you need to have the legal ability to do so if the need should ever arrive.

All of this got me thinking about my personal collection of first edition Dana Girls Mystery Stories. I chose Dana Girls because they and Nancy Drew were my favorite books as a little girl. But Nancy Drew first editions are still too expensive for me. However, during class I found this website which seems to have good information about Dana Girls editions and Nancy Drew editions to inform my future collecting.

PS. If your thinking of buying me something ;) I like the Dana Girls books printed between 1934 and 1942.

Citations –
American Heritage Center: Acquisitions Guidelines

Lasner, Mark Samuels. (2009). A Collector’s View. Books in Hard Times: The Impact of the Recession on Collectors, Librarians, and the Antiquarian Booktrade. Symposium held at the Grolier Club, September 22, 2009.

Max, D.T. (2007). Final Destination: Why Do the Archives of So Many Great Writers End Up at Texas? The New Yorker, June 11, 2007, pp. 54-71.

Have a great day and keep smiling! :)