Libraries Vie for Writers' Treasure or Trash

Gifts and purchases of manuscripts - even wastebasket contents - fill literary archives

A SCHOLAR researching the work of C.P. Snow expected to find the British writer's papers at Cambridge University in England, where Snow studied, or maybe at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass., where he delivered his famous ``Two Cultures'' lectures. Instead they turned up at the University of Texas in Austin, 6,000 miles from the late novelist's London flat.

Want to study manuscripts of James Joyce's books? Forget Dublin; head for Oklahoma and the large Joyce collection at the University of Tulsa, or to Austin again to see page proofs of ``Ulysses'' with corrections in the Irishman's hand.

In the active trade in literary archives, not even national pride or the Atlantic Ocean can overcome the gravitational pull of scholarly interest and collecting zeal backed by big money.

Not all the rare books, manuscripts, and letters of writers, musicians, politicians, and other famous people that reside in library collections are purchased. Many great collections at institutions like Harvard's Houghton Library, Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in New Haven, Conn., Indiana University's Lilly Library in Bloomington, Ind., and the New York Public Library began with large donations of books and archives from private collectors.

And every special-collections librarian or curator can tell of welcome and sometimes surprise gifts. Truman Capote left his papers to the New York Public Library, which learned of the gift only after the writer's death. An early manuscript by the playwright Eugene O'Neill recently arrived at Yale, a bequest from a woman previously unknown to the Beinecke librarians.

To a great extent, though, libraries must pay top dollar to obtain the nuggets - or in some cases entire gold mines - they covet to attract scholars and enhance institutional prestige.

Money - especially oil royalties - enabled the University of Texas to wade in as a major literary collector starting in the late 1950s, when Harry Huntt Ransom established the school's Humanities Research Center. Today the center, best known for its collections of 20th-century American, British, and French literature, houses about 1 million books and 30 million manuscripts. (The center purchased C.P. Snow's papers from a British dealer in 1981.)

Librarians at the Ransom Humanities Research Center, like their counterparts at many of the large collecting libraries, won't disclose their annual budget for new acquisitions. The amounts are substantial, though. The Lilly Library can spend up to $700,000 a year to expand its special collections, according to its director, William Cagle.

Even six-figure acquisition budgets don't stretch too far, however, as collectors' demand for high-quality books and literary documents has pushed prices up.

``Archives of important modern writers often cost $250,000 or more,'' says Leslie Morris, curator of manuscripts at Harvard's Houghton Library.

As a result, librarians devise innovative ways to purchase materials. Ms. Morris tries to work out deals to buy part of a writer's archive if the writer will donate the rest. In a recent article for writers thinking of selling their papers, Thomas Staley, director of the Ransom Center in Texas, advised: ``Be prepared to receive payment without interest over two or three years if the purchase is a fairly large one.''

Judith Lowry, a dealer in rare books and manuscripts in New York, once represented a woman who had ``20 to 30 very funny love letters'' written by the humorist James Thurber many years earlier. None of the libraries she approached would pay the $10,000 price Ms. Lowry put on the letters, but, she says, ``an `angel' bought the letters and donated them to Cornell University'' in Ithaca, N.Y.

Librarians and curators are always on the lookout for that first-edition book, hand-written manuscript, or packet of letters that will complement materials they already hold. Sometimes these come as gifts, or they are offered for sale by a dealer or at Christie's or Sotheby's auction houses. Most materials relating to an established writer or other historical figure come out of private collections, though occasionally - as with the Thurber letters - they come out of the woodwork.

``It's rare for an important find to turn up in someone's attic, but it does happen,'' Morris says.

For institutional collectors, the occasional Hemingway draft or Faulkner letter is a precious but small gem. The mother lode for these literary collectors is found in the still largely intact archives of living writers or recently deceased authors whose papers are controlled by family members or a literary executor.

``A lot of living authors are interested in selling their papers, and a number of libraries are interested in collecting them,'' Morris says.

``Until the 1930s, there were few archives,'' says Patricia Willis, American-literature curator at Yale's Beinecke Library. ``Collectors and libraries wanted only the most important manuscripts and letters, so many writers didn't keep early drafts and other papers. Starting in the '30s, though, librarians wanted everything; they said, `Give me the contents of your wastebaskets.' ''

Writers often donated their papers to libraries, especially if they were alumni of a university or had established some other close relationship to an institution or a curator. Also, they could take a tax deduction for the fair market value of the donated material.

But changes in the tax law in 1969 eliminated most of the tax deduction for gifts of self-generated material. The result, says Ms. Willis: ``Now just about everything is for sale.''

In this market, the competition is serious but civilized. This is not a cutthroat business. The hustle for literary records rarely degenerates into a mere bidding war among libraries.

Even more rarely does the rivalry end up in court, but there are exceptions: Last spring Boston University successfully defended its possession of papers deposited by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. against a lawsuit by Dr. King's widow and the King Center in Atlanta.

MOST sales of literary archives are handled by rare-book dealers like Ms. Lowry and other experienced intermediaries. According to Lowry - who has sold some of poet Robert Lowell's papers to the University of Texas and documents by writer Jean Stafford to Cornell - dealers appraise material (``a very subjective process, especially for a living author''), establish a price, and then ``go to the most likely buyer, first.'' In most cases, she says, she would offer items to a subsequent buyer only after the first collector turned them down.

``The trick is being a matchmaker,'' Lowry says, ``getting things to the right library.'' Dealers know what collections libraries hold and how new material might fit into a library's strengths and goals, she explains.

Willis, Mr. Cagle, and other librarians say they even will steer offered documents to another collection where there's a better fit, or to keep a writer's papers together. ``While we compete,'' Cagle says, ``we also like to think of ourselves as a community to serve the scholarly world.''

Most authors want to get a good price for their archives, of course. But they also take other considerations into account, librarians say.

``Many writers are not just concerned with the highest price,'' says Lisa Browar, assistant director for rare books and manuscripts at the New York Public Library. ``They are looking for an institution that will genuinely care for these documents that are the product of their life's work. They want to be sure the papers will be well protected, properly cataloged, and easily accessible to scholars.''

For this reason, Ms. Browar says, she tries ``to cultivate a climate of trust and respect between writers and the library. Many authors need a certain comfort level'' before they will agree to give or even sell their archives to a collector.

Of course, the first step for a writer is to have an archive that's of value to scholars. ``Whenever I meet authors,'' Lowry says, ``I tell them, `Never throw any papers away.' ''

About these ads
Sponsored Content by LockerDome

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...

Save for later

Save
Cancel

Saved ( of items)

This item has been saved to read later from any device.
Access saved items through your user name at the top of the page.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You reached the limit of 20 saved items.
Please visit following link to manage you saved items.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You have already saved this item.

View Saved Items

OK