Thursday, May 14, 2009

Deaccessioning, Redux

Since there has been some further discussion (as I'm sure there will continue to be) about USF and this issue of deaccessioning objects from rare book collections, some additional thoughts would seem to be in order. And no one need take my word for it, there's a whole corpus of articles about this question in the archival and library science literature if one feels to urge to dig deeper (I've even written a paper or two about this subject so I've probably got a bibliography or two kicking around).

Deaccessioning is indeed a perfectly legitimate thing to do, if done for the right reasons. It should always be done based on a coherent, written, formally-approved policy which clearly outlines any and all procedures to be used in the deaccessioning of objects (of any type) from an institutional collection. There are all sorts of things that come into play here: original wishes of the donor, method of disposition, approval by various oversight bodies, how any proceeds can be used, &c. &c. &c. Different institutions handle the various minutiae of these elements in different ways, and use varying criteria for determining what can or should be deaccessioned, when, and how. One of the key elements of any good deaccession policy is transparency: sufficient notice should be given to any and all interested parties regarding proposed deaccessions, and if items are ultimately sold, the preferred method should be public auction, with complete clarity to potential bidders about the origin of the item in question.

Generally accepted as legitimate reasons for deaccessioning items include: items out of scope of the collection (pianos at the Boston Public Library, for example); items which fit better with another institution's mission or existing collections; duplicate items; items given by a donor with the express condition that they may be sold; materials which the organization cannot afford to keep safely or insure - things like that. The library/museum community is almost universal (as it is about so few things), in condemning deaccessions made for the sole purpose of raising "quick cash." Unfortunately the rare book and art collections of colleges and universities (or other institutions) can seem like money trees to short-sighted administrators, who see dollar signs where others of us see treasures of a different sort.

In these trying times, I can understand (but still don't agree with) the idea that selling off parts of the collection could be of financial benefit. But the long-term harm caused by such actions - especially if done contrary to or without a formal deaccession policy in place - can be real, and lasting. Donors (past and potential), scholars, and public at large are important constituencies for colleges and universities to consider. Stephen Gertz writes "At this time the economy is far from ideal and the need to raise cash, and fast – whether as an individual or institution – is a prudent survival strategy in a time of sharp financial downturn." Raising cash fast is, indeed, what all of our institutions find ourselves needing to do right now ... but doing so by clandestinely auctioning off prize collections, carefully acquired over decades, seems a poor way to go about it. Why not instead highlight the collections - help your users and the public at large understand their value - their intrinsic value to scholarship, not the number of dollars they'll bring at auction.

I'd like to respond briefly to another couple of points Gertz makes about the decisions taken by President Privett at USF. The first. Gertz writes: "Let’s be honest. The decision making process at any institution can be a long, drawn out, grueling and exhausting ordeal. The financial peril USF faced must have been acute. Had Privett taken the issue to committee for discussion, they’d likely still be discussing, arguing, protesting, revolting six months from now." In fact that's exactly what should have happened. I know of at least one institution which, for any deaccession, mandates that the governing board vote to approve the deaccession at two consecutive quarterly board meetings. Deliberation and contemplation are good things when it comes to decisions like this - hasty actions, no matter what the justification - are not.

Gertz's concluding point gets to what seems to lie at the heart of this, and what is a major difference between librarians/archivists/curators - we who see ourselves as custodians of rare books, manuscripts and other materials, ensuring their availability for the scholars of today and tomorrow - and others (be they collectors, dealers, auctioneers, whatever). Gertz: "The items from USF’s Gleeson Library were sold at auction. To the public. To be recirculated to private collectors. In other words, out of the confines of an institution and back out into the light of day to be dearly appreciated by a real, live, passionate person, not a cold abstract like 'the public.'" This argument, which seems to suggest that materials in institutional collections are unappreciated or unavailable, is, frankly, absurd. Is not a rare book, manuscript, or piece of artwork more likely to be widely used, studied, viewed, yes, even appreciated, in an institution than if it's in someone's private collection? Perhaps that private collector will make his or her holdings known, and invite people in to see/consult/appreciate them. But perhaps not. Absolutely, libraries need to do a better job of letting people know what they have and how their resources can be used, but making these items and collections available is what we do - it's why people like me come to work in the morning, why we write and talk and think about the collections in our care and delight in seeing the work that scholars make of them.

Anyway, that's a whole different debate, really, of which deaccessioning is just a tiny part. What is clear from what we know so far about what's happening at USF is that it is being done either contrary to or in the absence of a formal deaccessioning policy, and that's very much a problem. I have no problem with formal deaccessioning carried our properly and for legitimate reasons. This, it seems to me, fails to pass on every one of those counts.