All That Glitters | Newberry

All That Glitters

We were recently given a small pamphlet by a man named Lawrence W. Towner. The title is “Every Silver Lining Has A Cloud.” It is mildly rare and not terribly valuable, but it has a story to tell. And, besides, there’s a pun hidden in the title.

The text is a speech which was given at a conference where librarians gathered. Lawrence W. “Bill” Towner was at that point the young, vibrant president of the Newberry Library. This was some fifty years ago, and the Newberry Library had enjoyed a great deal of media attention because of the Louis H. Silver Collection. This was a mighty collection of early printing which had gone up for sale en bloc. The library which acquired this collection would be getting a huge boost in the way of important books printed in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries (and then some.) The Newberry, under Towner’s leadership, had gone after the collection at auction, and lost.

But a legendary Newberry curator, Jim Wells, who had connections all through the bookselling community, found that all was not well between the purchaser and the seller. The funding the purchaser had counted on was falling short. So, between them, Jim and Bill let it be known that the Newberry had to funding to support its bid and was still interested. And, in the end, all those wonderful books came to the Newberry. They were delivered by armed guards, and photos of the crates being opened at the Newberry proliferated through the media of the day.

So far so good. But then the Newberry immediately put a bunch of the Silver books up for sale. The glow of winning the auction went dark. How dare the Newberry, basking in the brilliance of the Silver Collection, break it up and unload some of the treasure?

Bill Towner did a lot of explaining, and summed up the whole theory in his speech “Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud”. (And perhaps you see where the pun comes in. See, it’s the Louis…you’ll get it.) He goes through the whole history of the Newberry and the various collections which had come in over the years. The Newberry was not, however, a treasury, just for storing great things. It was a Library, he said, and use of the material was of paramount importance. Sometimes great books arrived which had no particular place in the purpose of the Library: a number of Louis Silver’s treasures were fine printings of early works in science and mathematics, which were not part of the Newberry’s focus. And sometimes great books which MIGHT have claimed a place on the Newberry shelves were worth so much money that it made more sense to sell them and use to cash to buy books more pertinent to the needs of the institution. (And, by the by, pay off some of the loans which made the Louis Silver purchase possible in the first place.)

His basic point was that sometimes Great Libraries have to sell Great Books. His pamphlet was either a major work in the theory of library deaccessioning or a fine example of self-justification. In any case, besides being a nifty piece of Newberry history, it reminded me of some of the Terrible Treasures which have come the way of the Book Fair of the years.

We have, for example, a very rare work by an important calligrapher and book artist. It’s sort of a blueprint for his masterpiece, a book he completed several years later. He did this booklet for a very small audience, and it is almost unobtainable. What cloud can there be around this silver lining? Well, I have a thousand copies of it. I can charge whatever I like, controlling the price for the foreseeable future. All I need to do is find a place to store them all.

We have had others in the years gone by. There was the wonderful expensive reproducing piano (which the owner had painted in red and white candy stripes.) There was that rare and beautiful book of dance illustrations (with the beautiful mold spore which covered nearly the whole back cover.) We had that massive set which printed every official document issued by both governments during the Civil War (and it had only been underwater for a month or so.)

I expect more silver linings, and their clouds, as we roll along toward the 2019 Book Fair. At least I have one less cloud than Towner did. People EXPECT me to sell the treasures I get.

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