The husband of a recently and unexpectedly deceased faculty member is cleaning out his wife’s office next week. It’s a sad kind of project to embark on, tidying up and sorting and giving away someone’s professional and research world, knowing that she was unable to finish the things she had hoped to accomplish. And this morning I discovered that he has contacted the libraries, asking for our assistance in finding good homes for her materials. I replied with several goals in mind: Assist him in whatever way I can with this difficult task, ensure that her research materials find an appropriate home in the College Archives, and minimize the libraries’ workload as much as possible.
That last may seem selfish, or uncharitable, but it’s not, really. I’ve learned, in my 10 years of processing gift collections in academic libraries, that senior researchers, long-time friends of the college, and retiring faculty all have one thing in common: They collect good books. That’s a great thing, right? It means that their donated collections are wonderful for libraries, right?
Not always. In fact, rarely.
See, dedicated faculty members collect good books — and they also request that the library buy them. I would estimate that 80-90% of the books in any retiring faculty member’s personal library are already in our library, and our copies are usually in better condition than the personal copy, since library books are used less on average than a serious researcher’s copies. So a gift from a retiring faculty member contains about 10-20% of truly valuable materials for our collection, but all 100% of them need to be handled, evaluated, searched, processed, and redistributed through our donation and sales programs. Gift books are free like kittens, and we’ve already got enough cats to herd right now.
But even knowing that truth about the workload and value of a donation, I don’t ever want to say “I can’t help you” to someone desiring to make a generous gesture. We love the friends of libraries, and we want to support their friendship. In this case, I also genuinely want to assist in a difficult situation. So I made three offers.
One, that I would evaluate the materials in her office with an eye to preserving her research on the history of the College in the College Archives. Two, that I would review the book collection on behalf of the libraries after her colleagues had a chance to mine it for materials useful for their own teaching and research. And, three, that I would assist the family in finding appropriate homes for all materials not needed by the college community.
The third one is where I think libraries and collection managers can do their best outreach — it’s not always the case that friends of the libraries want to give the books specifically to the library — it’s just that they don’t always know what to do with them other than throw them away, and “the library will want them!” sounds reasonable to them. So if the library doesn’t want them, the worst thing we can do is say “No, go away”. Not very friendly, and not helping them with their need. What we can do is offer assistance.
I have a storehouse of local used booksellers who will evaluate collections and buy books, and regularly recommend them to potential donors. I have a business arrangement with Better World Books, so if the donor wants to donate the books to the library with the understanding that I will disperse them as I see fit, I can guarantee that I will be sending them to an organization that makes the most of them. I regularly suggest campus clubs and organizations that do fundraising events, who might be interested in running a book sale. What I try never to do is say “no, go away”.
So despite the fact that I’m in fiscal year-end purgatory and about to enter summer construction hell, I’m going to help out next week, because a friend of the library has an information need, and I have some answers. And that’s what librarians do.