Selling the Farm?

Readers of SLAW know that, as a rule, librarians are passionate about their collections, and despite negative stereotypes, they embrace the electronic resources and developments with alacrity, often way ahead of the pack. (For example, in 1998, the librarian community were among the earliest adopters of, and overwhelmingly enthusiasts for, the new Google search engine, with is simple clean lines and lack of advertising – such a contrast to the AltaVista, Ask Jeeves  and Excite interfaces in use at the time.)

Where practical and useful for the organisation, librarians equally maintain the book resources for which they have responsibility. All librarians are custodians of their collections, not owners, and this responsibility weighs heavily on those of us who are fortunate enough to oversee collections of national, and sometimes even international, merit.

Nowadays however, we are all tightening our collective belts, and trying to identify items in our collections that really are no longer needed to be held in paper because the digital version is preferred (see Louis Mirando’s excellent recent analysis of the in depth consideration being given to the status of the Canadian Abridgment at Osgoode Hall). (The side issue that we rent the digital versions, and do not own them in perpetuity is one for another blog). We also have reviewed and revised our collection strategy at the Bodleian Law Library over the past five years, from a standpoint where we wanted to keep everything in paper, to a realisation of the impossibility of this course unless we found two sugar daddies – one to support the costs of acquisition, and one to fund the expansion of the physical library to house everything.

So another path might suggest itself – sell one or two rare and unused treasures to plug a funding shortfall. We hold some valuable treasures in our law library, without going to the real crown jewels in the mother-ship, the Bodleian. And looking at the prices that rare books fetch, it might be tempting to think of selling one or two for the long term benefit of the collection as a whole. But there is no way that we could ever even contemplate selling a single item from our collection to plug a budgetary hole, because we look after this collection in trust for future generations.

Yet this is exactly what was suggested at the University of London. The Senate House Library of the University of London proposed the sale of their Shakespeare Folios (the First, Second, Third and Fourth) to create an endowment fund in order to attract more readers. They were scheduled to be auctioned by Bonham’s, fine art auctioneers, in November.

The move generated international controversy. A summary of the debate can be found in the Guardian article of 4 September . There was an online petition to protest the decision, and I signed it, along with at least 3,000 others. I was encouraged that this might succeed when I read a well reasoned response to the decision of Senate House, by the Shakespeare scholar Henry Woudhuysen, (Rector of Lincoln College, Oxford), which was disseminated quite widely.

There was the legal angle that needed to be considered as well. These volumes were left to the library by Sir Louis Sterling in 1956 on condition that they remain permanently in the Library’s collection. He donated over 4,000 items to form the collection which has many other treasures proudly described on the Senate House Library site. In addition, Sir Louis provided an endowment to ensure the collection was maintained and enhanced over time. Any change to the terms of the bequest would have had to go to the Charity Commission for approval.

When a donor sets conditions on a gift, these must be respected. That is what the donors expect. If potential donors see an institution try to change the conditions of the gift, for whatever reason, it could well deter them from ever trusting any library to take on the long term responsibility of holding precious donations in the future. Trust law and the law of donations may vary from one jurisdiction to another, but the fundamental principles are the same.

There is a happy ending to this story, and a ringing endorsement of the positive aspects of social media. The outcry via blogs, articles, and Twitter and Facebook comments led the Vice Chancellor of the University of London to call off the proposed sale on Thursday 5 September.

This does not solve the UL’s immediate problem of needing more funding to carry out its plans. All libraries are in a much more complicated funding environment since the inception of digital resources. These new resources have added to the costs of the collections; many libraries have a balancing act because the overall allocation for materials has not increased to take into account the cost of e-resources, so inevitably cuts are made to purchases of new paper books.

It gives me great joy, however, to see a noticeable resurgence of support for libraries as worthwhile institutions, from articles in the press about public libraries  to articles from the profession (eg, Canadian Stephen Abram links to many in his blog), to public appeals to politicians (this one prepared in the run up to the recent election in Australia).

In contrast to this scramble for funds in London, Birmingham proudly opened its new Library last week. This £187 million testament to the value that is vested in the future of the library, whatever form its contents may take over the future, could not be more loudly proclaimed than by this adventurous local government undertaking.

Now we just have to ensure any other libraries are not driven to contemplating selling off their treasures so they can fund their futures.

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