American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 48

Collectors, Collections,
and Scholarly Culture

by Neil Harris, Moderator

Rare Book Collections in the Age of the Library Without Walls
by Anthony Grafton

The Library and the Scholar: A New Imperative for Partnership
by Deanna Marcum

The Collector J. Pierpont Morgan
by Jean Strouse

The session on "Collectors, Collections, and Scholarly Culture" was presented on May 6, 2000, in Washington, DC as part of the ACLS Annual Meeting.

© Neil Harris


Neil Harris, Moderator
Preston and Sterling Morton Professor of History,
University of Chicago

Welcome to the ACLS public session on Collectors, Collections, and Scholarly Culture. I'm Neil Harris and I will be serving as moderator this morning.

Before introducing our speakers, I'd like to say a few words about the larger subject of collecting, confining myself mainly to this country. Collecting, as Tom Tanselle noted in a recent Salmagundi essay, has become an increasingly absorbing subject for historians, anthropologists, psychologists, and economists, not to mention innumerable non-academics who flock to flea markets, fairs, and shows of various kinds, subscribe to journals and newsletters, buy and sell on e-bay and other Internet sites, and constitute something of a scholarly subject in themselves. There is, in addition, the considerable television audience—tens of millions—for both the British and American versions of Antiques Road Show, an audience which seems to include in its ranks, as do these other categories of collectors, some academics as well. The culture of collecting, as an obsessive pastime, merits discussion on its own terms, and reflects a range of attitudes and imperatives that comprehend both nature and nurture.

But today's symposium subject appears to be somewhat more exclusive than that, and is meant to reflect a special aspect of collecting, not so much collecting as a scholarly subject but collecting as a scholarly object, collecting as it has contributed to, reflected, and even shaped the character of scholarship itself, principally, though I suspect not entirely, through the purchase and donation of manuscripts and printed materials. There is, in some quarters, a sense of foreboding about this relationship as we look to a future in which books and manuscripts no longer enjoy the primacy that have been theirs over the last five hundred years. The digitizing of records, the increasingly electronic form of transactions and communications, and the spread of computer usage constitute shifts of practice that have received a great deal of attention, although not necessarily from those concerned with the future of scholarly collecting. It might be useful to remember that one hundred years ago the explosion of printing which was nurtured by growing wealth and new technologies, stimulated some private collectors to take action themselves to allow future generations of scholars to document the character of daily living. The best example I can cite, although it is hardly the only one, is the John Johnson Collection at Oxford, which some of you may know, an extraordinary miscellany of ephemera including broadsides, bus and laundry tickets, menus, store receipts, business cards, letterheads, bills, and public notices, that collectively give us entry into the life of Victorian England. There have been some counterparts to Johnson in the United States, like Belle Landauer, whose collection of trade cards is in the New-York Historical Society; and, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, William M. Ivins and A. Hyatt Mayor, who headed its eclectic and capacious Prints Department, going after printed materials and ephemera in which no one else seemed interested. And there have been other, unsung heroes who as collectors, librarians, or curators, recognized the need to change generic definitions and amass the stockpiles to fuel the observations and the research of later generations.

This spirit of openness toward scholarly possibility that has animated a number of collectors in the past is also linked to the very institution that has hosted us, the Library of Congress. You have probably heard and seen a good deal in the last couple of days about the Library's ongoing celebration of its history, but much more can be said. The Jefferson Building, site of the Haskins Lecture and reception last night, is simultaneously the most elaborately decorated public building in this country and the most complex and heroic tribute to the culture of the written word ever constructed in the United States. Decoding the allegorical murals, mosaics, and sculptured works, and analyzing the building's decorative exuberance, have generated a whole series of texts in themselves. But the origin of the Library as such, the impulse to make it something more than a narrow reference collection for a legislative body, was supported by a narrowly-won Congressional debate which raised questions still relevant to policy makers today, about the connections linking collecting, scholarship, public need, and public funds.

The second birth of the Congressional Library, as many of you know, took place after the first, rather limited collection, was destroyed in the fire that consumed the Capitol building in 1814. Jefferson's offer to sell his personal library to the government, an offer reflecting both his concern that there be a great library in Washington and his financial needs, touched off waves of partisan bickering and fascinating reflection, well documented by historians of the library. There had earlier been opposition to Congress spending any money at all on a library; why did legislators have to appropriate funds for books, when there were so many other pressing wants, a New England newspaper had mused. But the collection that Jefferson had assembled was, in fact, something other than just a group of useful books, a great prize but also one of apparently dubious value to a pragmatic Congress. A passionate bibliophile, while Minister to France Jefferson spent his summers poring over possible purchases, and had standing orders with booksellers throughout the world. He had accumulated many thousands of books, some of them extraordinarily rare. He was asking $25,000 for the entire collection, and the ensuing debate was partly over money, partly over politics, and partly over policy, and included considerable contention over the uses of the humanities. By turn Congressmen accused Jefferson's books of being arcane, subversive, useless, and expensive, charges which sound down the corridors of time in attacks on humanistic enterprise. One legislator declared, rather memorably, that the books were in "languages which many cannot read, and most ought not to." Newspaper columnists had a field day satirizing the highly varied and specialized subjects covered by Jefferson's collection—something like the title trove brought back from the annual meeting of the MLA by journalists pretending to be shocked and scandalized.

Naturally enough, another side put forth its own views. Many defended the purchase as a public gesture that was both noble and appropriate, and castigated their opponents with as much vitriol as they had received. Ultimately, proponents of the purchase argued, what wasn't there that the lawmakers of a democratic republic might not need, one day, to consult, as they debated the national welfare? Future generations would blush, warned one journal, at the narrow-mindedness displayed in the debate.

As you all know, Congress did purchase the collection, but the results were uncomfortably close—only ten votes separated the two sides, reflecting the intense political partisanship of the day. And, alas, much of the Jefferson collection so bitterly contested was burned to ashes in a fire some decades later. But it is reassuring that, despite the cautionary notes and the controversy, in the end the Congress endorsed a broad and welcoming view of scholarly collecting, and subscribed to the notion, in practice rather than through a clearly expressed policy, that their own library should, in essence, become the national library. It is a national library, moreover, that is probably unique in having more than half its holdings in languages other than the language of its host country—English—although not, as early objections put it, in languages that most of us should not speak. The cosmopolitanism and international character of the collection, and the work of the Library staff who, for more than a century, have pioneered the development of cataloguing procedures and copyright agreements, have proven immensely beneficial to scholars throughout the world. From somewhat unpromising beginnings, in a political culture that lacked sympathy for the research needs of the scholarly community, a great collection did emerge, to be enriched, starting in the mid-nineteenth century, by a series of private gifts and by private collections, of extraordinary importance, which the Congress did agree to purchase. Whatever shortcomings many of us may feel exist in government policy toward humanistic scholarship, the nurturing and maintenance of this great library is a reminder that at some moments, at least, there has been official recognition of the importance of the larger scholarly enterprise, and a spirit of generosity about its nurturing.

Scholars in this country have reason to be thankful for a series of private collectors as well, whose gifts to historical societies, universities, and museums have made possible a whole range of investigations and the training of specialists in various languages and disciplines. Absent the archives and rare book collections in our great university libraries, it is hard to imagine how, without extremely expensive and time-consuming travel, humanistic studies would have been effectively pursued in this country during the last 100 years. One can mention, at a minimum, such names as Wilmarth Lewis, Paul Mellon, Mary Hyde, Arthur Altschul, and Arthur Houghton. The desire to counter geographical determinism was also a powerful argument employed by congressional supporters of public institutions like the Library of Congress. The oceans, they pointed out, may have been powerful insulators from foreign attack, but they placed American scholars at a significant disadvantage in a variety of fields. This issue, incidentally, was among those that led to the very creation of the American Council of Learned Societies and once supported a dedicated grants program: travel to foreign conferences and seminars. Again, technology in our own time has reduced some of the cost and distance, but even today the landscape of scholarly inquiry has been shaped, to a surprisingly large extent, by the obsessions and generosity of collectors, some of whom, to be sure, were scholars in their own right. One thinks of George Bancroft, Francis Parkman, William Hickling Prescott, and George Ticknor, for example. Nearly every campus in America bears some mark of the passion for collecting of such individuals, to say nothing of the names of others whose libraries would become bywords for research: Huntington, Morgan, Folger, Clark, Lenox (a basis for today's New York Public), Crerar, and Newberry—these last two founders of libraries rather than collectors themselves. Within the American field itself, figures like Jared Sparks, Hubert Howe Bancroft (who sold his library to Berkeley in 1905), William Clements at Ann Arbor, William Robertson Coe at Yale, and John Carter Brown of Providence (whose son bequeathed his library), made an extraordinary impact upon scholarship. And they did so, in part, by buying up at auction, and through other means, collections which were not intended to go to institutions or permanently serve scholarly purposes: those of Beverly Chew, Robert Hoe, Frederic Halsey.

I have focussed so far on individual collectors. But the relationship between individual and institutional scholarly collecting in the United States is itself a fascinating if complex story. Several of the shrewdest and most effective university faculty and administrators of this century achieved some of their celebrity by recognizing the significance of private collectors and channeling their energies toward the growth of great academic libraries—Harry Ransom at Texas, Gordon Ray at Illinois, Herman Wells at Indiana, Chauncey Brewster Tinker at Yale, Franklin Murphy at Kansas and UCLA. Not invariably philanthropic in their broader sentiments, or even necessarily sympathetic to the cause of education, often eccentric in lifestyle or values, collectors have occasionally been led, by their passions, to underwrite larger causes. Once a significant collection has been formed, and the collector indicates some interest in its going to an institution, the challenge is to get sufficient endowment to support effective cataloging, research, conservation, and maintenance. And this is a challenge that many institutions have effectively met.

Private collectors, then, have done far more than simply supply scholars and researchers with raw material for their work. They have also helped fund the very institutions that employ scholars, drawn to such a pursuit, in many cases, through a fascination with object accumulation rather than older associations or raw enthusiasm for the pursuit of knowledge in itself. Some students of library history have indeed argued that collectors often forced rare book programs onto universities, their private passions rather than careful central planning driving these holdings forward. Emulation and envy, as well as professionalization, were key factors in dispersing the ideal of aggressive collecting as a university function, along with competition for star faculty and development strategies. Motives and techniques can be seen as mixed, and indeed some here may wish during the discussion to address the tensions attending the pursuit of specialized and expensive collections.

Individual collectors, like any other group, have not been universally beneficent. Some of them have attached difficult conditions to use of their collection. Quite a number of them have obtained their materials unfairly or illegally. Others have driven values so high that forgery becomes an appealing trade. And others still have competed with educational and research institutions and, after purchase, have occasionally broken up significant collections, in the interest of profit or, as disappointed suitors might contend, pure mischief. Still, the overall impact of private collecting on scholarship has been overwhelmingly positive, with private desire and social gain co-existing. Many collectors rescued from oblivion materials that otherwise might have been trashed, looted, thrown away, or that might have simply deteriorated. And again, aided by gifts and benefactions, institutional collecting at great research libraries, spearheaded by remarkably creative and energetic figures—like Lyman Draper, Reuben Thwaites, Herbert Putnam, William Poole, Justin Winsor, Ainsworth Rand Spofford, Harry Lydenberg, Robert Vosbergh—created extraordinary opportunities for research in almost every part of the United States. In particular, the willingness of legislatures in states like Wisconsin—not among the wealthiest—to appropriate funds for the support of major research libraries—in effect, to buy rare and specialized materials—has been impressive.

But it is now time to let our three speakers address the subject of collecting and scholarship themselves. We are grateful for their presence here today.

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