I have a hard-bound copy of Mark Purcell’s book, The Country House Library (Yale University Press, 2019) on my reading ottoman at this moment. It’s a wonderful coffee table book of the sort that Yale does so well and so seductively. But towards the end of Purcell’s book, there’s a distressing chapter about the way in which so many of the historical collections held in those Great Houses fell apart – individual bits and bobs scattered to whichever rare book dealer at the time could afford the acquisition. Economics drove the owners to disperse the holdings of these collections.
Much of the narrative found in The Library: A Fragile History (Basic Books, 2021) reflects that same cycle. Whether belonging to a library or to an individual, collections of books don’t remain intact. Assessment of value shifts overtime. Someone twists the kaleidoscope and the individual bits of color fall into some new orientation.
The substance of the content may not even be relevant. How the value of individual books was assessed became evident in the early European monastic libraries, as Fragile History authors Pettegree and der Weduwen document.
Although we can track the fate of every piece of silverware, every bell, and every lead roof, libraries are only mentioned in the assessment reports for the value of their wooden furniture…Liturgical books belonging to the monasteries were valued greatly but only for the potential to salvage gold, silver, and semi-precious stones from their bindings. Beyond this decoration, they were of little intrinsic value,” (pgs 108-109).
A Fragile History also recounts the assembly of working collections by state ministers Cardinals Richeilieu and Mazarin in serving their French monarch and nation. Sadly those collections fell victim to political events and machinations over time, chipped away through “benign” neglect, theft and, in the case of Mazarin, public auction (page 200-207).
Much of the history contained in Pettegree’s and der Weduwen’s book deals with those (generally) well-heeled individuals who expended personal resources to assemble their own libraries according to a mixed variety of motives. It is the rare individual in the contemporary world who can assemble anything like those far-reaching collections. Umberto Eco’s personal library consisted of 30,000 titles and upon his death the nation of Italy moved swiftly to acquire the author’s collection for inclusion in two national libraries – one in Milan and the other in Bologna. Eco was himself a scholar and taught at the Università di Bologna. There is a viral YouTube video that shows him walking through shelves crammed with printed volumes, to reach unerringly for a particular volume. Again, the exception.
The question is to what extent the option of print ownership will remain quite as broadly available to scholars and faculty in both the near-term as well as in an uncertain future. Personal economics are, of course, a key variable and even the possibility of entering into a recession limits disposable income in a variety of domestic arrangements. Print runs are shrinking and prices for print editions continue to rise. As an example, my hardbound edition of The Country House Library (admittedly purchased at one of Amazon’s discounted price points) cost me roughly the same amount in 2019 as the paperback edition costs in 2022. No longer available in hardcover format, used copies (in conditions listed as very good or better) are listed in the triple digits by reputable sellers. For certain types of books, whenever a library weeds non-circulating materials from its collection, the odds go up in my favor.
A recent article appearing in The Washington Post noted that the used book market was surprisingly robust, due in part to the need of some households to downsize. The reporter called the phenomenon the “Great Deaccessioning”. In chats with retiring academics, they tell of the challenges of finding libraries willing to take in materials acquired over a lifetime of scholarship. Following the passing of my father, I sought in vain to identify an institution that might be willing to take in his library of books on the building and maintenance of railroads in the western U.S. during the 19th and 20th century.
At the same time, younger faculty experience a need to assemble their own working library as a necessity. Even before the pandemic, print runs were being carefully scrutinized and set at the most pragmatic of levels, due to projected sales figures as well as supply chain issues. Hardcovers may or may not be an option. One can sample a digital edition of The Country House Library on Google Books, but without resorting to the secondhand book market, a prospective reader can only purchase Yale’s text in paperback form, admittedly priced at an affordable $35.00. It is becoming more challenging for the individual scholar to build their working libraries, even as an aging population of faculty are caught up in the process of downsizing and the Great Deaccessioning.
In The Library: A Fragile History, the authors expressed gratitude to those friends and colleagues willing to lend out items from personal libraries during the research and writing process. But let’s be honest. Whether talking about books or journal articles, begging from one’s personal network of contacts is both time-consuming as well as unreliable as a form of access. Many have benefited from decades of abundant access to printed texts, but the information community may now need to think about the likelihood of impending constraints. Across the various sectors, what does that imply for the population being served?
Libraries are more than willing to absorb collections that others (literary giants, such as Umberto Eco) have built through personal success; such collections enhance prestige for the nation, the institution, and the library. Such negotiated acquisitions serve the long-term requirements for future study and archival storage. More immediately, they expect to satisfy any access needs for faculty and students via consortial agreements and shared collections. The approach is a considered one and balanced insofar as possible. But it won’t be entirely satisfactory. There will always be that title from a small press that somehow slips through the community’s fingers. Is there a way of minimizing that risk? Who is buying what and how will the reader know what may or may not be immediately accessible to them?
We balance on a knife blade of risk and trust. Who will have that unique title needed by the individual reader? How confident can the reader be in their trust? I’m not sure that any stakeholder in the information community should be standing back and saying “Hey, man, not my problem.” We’re navigating a community shift in who holds what; we should know what the reader expects are and be transparent in how we hope to meet those expectations together.