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Friday, 22 June 2012

What should we be collecting now?

As a librarian looking after a modern rare books collection this question has been bubbling away in the back of my mind for some time. The 19th and 20th century collections at Eton College Library are quite general in their scope, wonderful, but general, in that the strongest areas are travel literature, Etonian authors, WWI, private press books, and literature.  Basically the stuff every book collector would dream of.  But how should this be developed? Not just in terms of what we acquire in future, but also in terms of aggressively purchasing verses organic growth via donation. Should we take the strengths of other institutions into account and reject competing with them? And should we concentrate on filling the gaps in our established collections or should we be filling our shelves with first editions of current authors?

Some answers, in my view, are very easy.  Of course we should develop the collections in which we are strongest. If you cannot find the work of an Etonian author at Eton then where would you be able to find it otherwise? It is perhaps our special duty to collect things that have been printed privately and would not necessarily be found in the legal deposit libraries, such as juvenilia from an author’s school days or more ephemeral items, such as school magazines.  Private press books are not too onerous an undertaking. Although they are expensive they are not produced in vast numbers. They also perpetuate the the skill of printing, the art of design, and the tradition of binding and papermaking, the entrenched elements of book history. WWI collecting also has parameters, memorabilia in this field will always be studied and used for teaching. But then should we be also purchasing all the histories and analysing works that have been published about the war since? Here it would seem prudent to limit ourselves to primary source items, or works by people that experienced the war first hand.

Anyway – should the legal deposit libraries not have copies of all the reference works that we and our readers could need? Taking this fact and moving away from the field of WWI is where my thinking becomes confused. We have a good collection of 19th and 20th century ‘general’ literature. The type of stuff any bibliophile collecting modern literature would be proud to own. I have catalogued most of it and enjoyed (almost!) every minute. But I can’t help thinking that we are not book collectors per se.  Yes, it is a thrill to touch a pristine first edition of T. S. Eliot but what exactly is its study value? And yes, we do have the first periodical printing with a correction in the author’s hand – and I get that, but what about the 6 copies of Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam with slight variations in dust-jacket, one detail changing upon it as the book was awarded various prizes? Interesting from a bibliographical point of view, perhaps, but if these copies are not supported by a vast Ian McEwan collection, with important provenances, etc., will anyone come here to look at them? We have collections with which one could write a bibliography, including every revision and binding variant, and someone may wish to do that one day, but our Ian McEwan collection probably is not one of them. Unless we have an established collection of a certain author or subject maybe we should not be trying to collect the modern first editions of every prolific current author, leaving that job to the legal deposit libraries or those libraries that have established collection in which these new works would sit well.

This means we maybe should lean more towards acquiring archives, original and unique manuscripts that will have a higher study value for outside scholars. Does this mean we then only go so far as to take in the printed works that support these unique items, such as the originator’s library or their own published first editions? Perhaps we should also only take in the printed collections of book collectors who will have acquired the important provenance items and printing or binding variants for us. Do we then use our budgets to add to these collections and try to complete the picture, or only then purchase items to supplement this base if the new additions will have study or teaching value? This then takes us away from an aggressive purchasing policy, allowing our collections to grow organically, through donations and user demand. We should probably start collecting statistics of the collections (perhaps even items) that get used most often. It does seem that donations seem to come in when a donor can see that the library already has strong related collections. Hopefully this will be enough to prevent the collections from stagnating (there is a lack of 1990s and 21st century popular literature thus far in our Modern Collection), without trying to buy the first editions of every fiction work published, trying to second guess who will become prolific. Maybe we can leave that to the collectors and hope that they will entrust a library to maintain the integrity of their collection at a later date.

The answer is probably a mixture of all of the above, judging each case on its own merit. I, for one, will be reading the ACRL RBMS Collection Development Discussion Group minutes as a way of trying to arrange my thoughts on the matter.