Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The books of the dead, and the subject librarian

One regular job that raises its head in the life of the subject librarian is the question of "legacy" collections. Surprisingly often I am sent huge lists of the books of the recently deceased, sometimes with an offer to go to houses to look through somebody's lifetime's collection. With a subject like Welsh, these houses full of books are not necessarily local, and sometimes instead I have to do the work remotely, attempting to judge from a list what might be useful and trying to work out how to get it from a distance (even from another country).

This can be an enormously time-consuming job. If it is merely a question of checking a list against what is in stock in our library and what is not, I can get someone else to do the checking - but it isn't usually as simple as that. We may already have a couple of copies of a book which is long out of print, but if it is in high demand a couple is not enough: a mechanical search rejecting duplicates won't pick up on such a gem. You need a fairly good knowledge of the subject to spot what may be potentially useful. The tendency for arbitrary stock selection criteria relating to the age of an item won't help with a humanities subject.

There are also practical difficulties. I do have a car (a lot of my subject librarian colleagues do not drive), but  I don't have parking rights at work, so actually unloading and carting boxes of books in an appropriate place isn't without problems. These collections are not always offered for nothing, so there is the question of finding money for them, and families often have no idea what to ask for. As we already have a broad and comprehensive collection in my subject area, I am more likely to want to fill gaps rather than take a whole library off someone's hands, but if the family is looking to sell the books, they would usually, understandably, rather take an offer for the whole lot than have people cherry-picking.

If you don't actually see the books, you can be in for some unwelcome surprises. People will tell you that they are in good condition, but that's a relative term. Yellowing Reader's Digest compends and the cheap paperbacks of yesteryear may have had sentimental value for someone, but they are not going to enhance a university's bookstock (this is a fairly regular issue in public libraries too - no doubt those libraries which have been decoupled from professional supervision and stock selection will be a dumping ground for much of this sort of thing).  In Wales, we have the added occasional hazard of chapels closing down, many of them having had vestries with their own libraries, once valuable community resources but often more recently sadly neglected. Items which might once have been welcome may have deteriorated beyond the point at which it may be reasonable to try to repair them. Condition is very much in the eye of the beholder. If you can't see what you're getting, be prepared for other unpleasantnesses: one colleague once arranged (expensive) transport for boxes of books from someone's house, and found herself having to dispose of, mainly, old clothes and other jumble which came with them.

Sometimes there are moments of sheer delight, as on the occasion when a bereaved son discovered among his father's possessions approximately fifty 19th century books which had been removed from our library years ago. They were all part of the original personal collection of Enoch Salisbury, and were all to do with the history of Glamorgan. This was embarrassing for the son, but we were pleased to have them back!

So many important Welsh books are out of print and unobtainable that the only place they can be (unless they have all been pulped) is in the houses of the elderly, so I am always hopeful of finding gold when a collection becomes available. On the whole, though, the amount of effort I put in to checking long lists against stock and making practical arrangements is disproportionate to any benefit ultimately gained by the library.

The whole question of book collections in private houses is fraught with sensitive issues. Bereaved people don't want to hear that you don't want their loved one's prized possessions. Sometimes they are under pressure of time to clear a house. Perhaps the dead relative had always expressed a wish that his/her books should go to their own old university library. It's a minefield! It's also one I'm personally very aware of, as I come from a family with a serious book habit myself. My father was a son of the manse, as was his own father, and he himself was an academic, so that's three generations of book accumulation, and I used to buy a lot of books too (I've slowed down now, due to lack of money and space). My husband grew up in a large rectory, so he also was exposed to the book habit from early on, and he is less disciplined than I am in trying not to persist. The clergy have a lot to answer for in the book sphere! The Methodist manse at one time came equipped with furniture and household goods, rather like army married quarters, so pictures and books were the only personal items on view in the home, and in my grandparents' case they went all over the country from Shetland to Portland. We have not kept everything which belonged to the now deceased book collectors in the family, but we still have an awful lot and the sentimental value they have for us won't be the same for those who come after us. I am not naive enough to think that any library will be interested in much of it (with the exception of certain subjects); no doubt we are also guilty of creating a problem for future generations.

With the advent of the e-reader, perhaps the book problem will be one day be worse than I have been thinking. I'm not sure I can cope with the thought of all these books being of no value to anyone, nor can I imagine living in a bookless house. We are still a good way off the "everything is on the Internet" scenario so much beloved of politicians and journalists, but the secondhand book market may certainly suffer. If it does, there will be a tidal wave of books emerging from the houses of the dead one day, and some hard decisions to make, both personally and for librarians.

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