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  • Ebb and Flow:The Migration of Collections to American Libraries:
    A Report
  • Richard W. Oram (bio)

The 45th Annual Preconference of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the Association of College and Research Libraries took place at Yale University from 21 June through 24 June 2004. It focused on the international origins of special collections in U.S. repositories as well as current ethical and management issues surrounding these materials.

The plenary sessions began with Alice Prochaska (Yale University) presenting a paper entitled "Some Issues Relating to the Ownership of Manuscripts." Taking her cue from similar remarks she made at the conclusion of the 2003 RBMS Preconference, Prochaska noted that many special collections have a complex history of ownership and therefore might be said to belong to more than one country. In effect, they "contain the DNA of our shared past," and ownership thus implies a responsibility to share them with the citizens of other lands. The consideration of ethical issues deriving from the ownership of foreign collections first came to the fore after World War II, and since then many countries as well as UNESCO have developed policies on the proper exportation of national cultural treasures.

James Raven (Essex University) took an historical overview in his paper, "Transatlantic Migrations in the Colonial Period." He reviewed the principal sources of statistical data (most notably, customs records, which include information on the weight of books arriving in America) on exports from London, the origin of most of the books that reached North America. By the beginning of the eighteenth century New England alone accounted for about of a third of English book exports. Colonial readers wanted to acquire the same books that were fashionable in the mother country, and by 1773 the export trade accounted for 182,000 volumes, or 5 percent of the total British book trade.

The second day's plenary sessions began with a talk by Robert Parks (Pierpont Morgan Library) on the outsized role played by J. P. Morgan in the migration of rare books and manuscripts from [End Page 145] England to America. Parks considered whether Morgan revolutionized collecting taste in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries or merely reflected it. Although his taste in rare materials and what constituted "high art" was fairly conventional, Morgan did introduce some substantial changes in the collecting of cultural materials. Chief among these was his use of en bloc acquisition of major treasures from England. The British popular press and cartoonists pictured Morgan as a cultural pirate. In one cartoon he was pictured as a sort of supermagnet, sucking cultural artifacts from England and the Continent and depositing them in his New York and London homes. Such behavior was bound to stir up some resentment of American wealth. Morgan's collecting was implicitly criticized in a little-known short story by Henry James, "The Outcry." Of course, Morgan was and continues to be regarded by some as one of the great cultural benefactors because he donated his rich collections of art and literature to the library bearing his name.

Michael Winship (University of Texas at Austin) examined the development of some American libraries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Yale, with a sizable collection of around 60,000 volumes in 1859, according to the Manual of Public Libraries, was from its inception successful at attracting a series of gifts. These donated collections often contained large numbers of English books, but, like most gentleman's libraries, they tended to emphasize the current, the practical, and the utilitarian. Because it was based on gifts of private libraries, Yale's development tended to be sporadic, and significant gaps in certain subject areas existed until the professionalization of librarianship and the advent of systematic collection development in the mid-nineteenth century. American libraries did not use the national libraries of Great Britain and France, which were based on large core donations, as their model. Instead, they should be regarded more as collections of much smaller collections.

Thomas F. Staley (University of Texas at Austin), director of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, reviewed his institution's relatively brief collecting history. The Ransom Center's explosive growth beginning...


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