Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Concerns over Church Library Deaccessions

Some recent articles have brought the issue of church library deaccessions back to the surface (after the discussions last fall of the Truro sale things went quiet for a bit). Writing in the Church Times, ("The C of E is losing its own history") Jonathan Clark argues that recent sales of books and manuscripts from churches are a major and troubling symptom of the decline of the Church of England:

"Unremarked, Anglican institutions are selling the contents of their ancient libraries. A search on Abebooks.com shows a swath of volumes for sale from cathedral libraries: Bangor, Canterbury, Ely, Lincoln, Llandaff, Lichfield, Exeter, St Asaph, Wells. Even at Oxford, Pusey House, established as a think tank with a scholarly as well as a pastoral remit, in 2005 sold much of the ancient contents of its library for the years before the Tractarians. A friend, viewing this sale at Christie’s, and appalled at the rows of venerable volumes, described it as 'like a scene from the dissolution of the monasteries'. Yet that, in present-day form, is too close to the truth.

One can imagine it. Accountants add up the retail value of the collections, calculate the number of borrowers or readers, and advise that there is no option but liquidation. Senior clergy, who no longer read the books, are all too happy to accept expert advice. The auction houses promise a professional service, and the best prices (which are not always realised). The Charity Commissioners make no complaint. There is little publicity.

Such sales are more than minor inevitabilities: together, they become a historical phenomenon. They signify the Church of England losing the argument, and turning away from an attempt to sustain a heavyweight historical rationale for itself. One wonders whether the libraries of most Anglican clerics now consist not of formidable works of scholarship, but of paperbacks from the 1970s, already disintegrating."

David Shaw comments on Ex-Libris that "many of the cases reported are simply housekeeping operations. It is in no way true that the cathedral libraries listed have been sold (as opposed to disposal of some items)." Shaw adds that at Canterbury, for example, some modern duplicates and out-of-scope items have been sold in recent years, but not the whole library.

It's important not to be alarmist about all this. All libraries must weed their collections. I don't know enough about the non-Truro cases listed here to make much comment on them, but I do think it's important to be cautious before leaping to unfounded conclusions (just because there's a listing on ABE doesn't mean that the entire library is being sold off piecemeal).

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