Sometimes it takes years to convince a spouse or parent or friend to part with “all those old books”. So it is a source of some satisfaction or solace to the donor to find that the Newberry Library itself has dibs on whatever comes in, and takes books “upstairs” to add to the collection..
Mind you, this does NOT mean that your Aunt Patsy’s collection of Grace Livingston Hill is going to be scooped up and borne away to the shelves. Nor does it mean some curator is going through every one of your Louis L’Amour paperbacks looking for the first editions. (Remind me to blog about first editions, sometime. There are days when I wish I could stomp the toes of whoever came up with the phrase ‘first edition”.)
What happens is that I go through your books. Yes, I do; I handle virtually every book dropped off. There are people who admire me for that and some who think it may be my whole problem. Then I set up in certain piles what I think the curators OUGHT to want: European history, old Gregg shorthand manuals, examples of fine or at least unusual printing, the history of Montana railroads, what have you. I can do this because after all these years I have an idea what the curators are looking for.
The books that go upstairs are not the most valuable, nor yet the rarest. They’re the books the library hasn’t already got, either because no curator ever had a chance at a copy or because when the book was published, the book buying budget amounted to sixteen cents and a used postage stamp. (Every library has years like that.) Or it may be that when the book was published, a curator said “We don’t want that cheap thing,” and now, fifty years later, it isn’t a cheap thing, and we want it very much indeed. (That’s why the library didn’t buy that James Joyce/Henri Matisse book I mentioned a few blogs ago. Of course, we gave AWAY our copy of Audubon’s Birds of America. You never know what a curator will decide is in scope for the collections.)
It comes to a couple of thousand books every year. As noted, it isn’t always something rare and valuable, but over the years, the Book Fair has given the library a Kelmscott Beowulf, a book inscribed by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. to Richard Henry Dana Jr. (for those of you who don’t recall, each of these men wrote one of the great unread classics of 19th century American literature), not one but two belly-dancing kits, and a massive collection of magazines on the history of American steamships. If something comes in that can be used for something besides building an excellent research collection, the library can take that as well. So we’ve also been responsible for a pair of boltcutters, a bag of florist’s foam, a microphone, and a case of unused copy paper.
You never know what a donor is going to decide is in scope, either.