Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Fragmenting the Past through Dispersing Collections of Books

Joseph Mendham, a nineteenth-century Anglican writer, 'controversialist' and book-collector, has been in the news today, as the subject, happily for him, of controversy. It was announced that the UK's Law Society, which owns his extant collection of books and manuscripts, has decided to sell off some of the more valuable items in their possession, despite an agreement apparently made with the original donor to keep the collection intact. The collection is housed at Canterbury Cathedral, with its close links to the University of Kent. Commenting on this sequence of events, Dr Alixe Bovey, at the University of Kent, said in a press statement that 'The imminent removal of the most valuable items will cause irreparable damage to the coherence and richness of this historic collection' ( Bovey later evocatively observed on her Twitter account that the 'appreciative noises' made by the Sotheby's employees sent to collect the choicest books were 'wincingly excruciating'. 

Can the deliberate dispersal of an historic collection of textual materials, carefully and focusedly assembled by an individual or corporate collector, be justified? The Law Society says it needs the money, and will hold off auction until November 1, but why sell off bits of the collection like this? I met a man in 2006 (let's call him Tim, because that was, indeed, his name), who, on hearing that I work with manuscripts, told me proudly that he and a partner in Tallahassee spent a great deal of their time buying up large, intact collections of nineteenth-century US Civil War documents that they managed to procure at bargain prices. (So far, so good.) They did this with the sole intention of dismembering these collections to maximise their profit. (Not so good.) I asked him if they at least provided evidence of the provenance of these documents, so that, should fortune favour the old, the collection might one day be reassembled. Tim had no idea what I meant; he had never given such an historically-aware approach the least thought.


Profiteering in this way by deliberately fragmenting historical evidence of the passions and pursuits of earlier collectors impoverishes our human record. It's that simple. I would liken it to the more explicit lack of intellectual integrity of the St Petersburg Antiquarian Book-Dealer I spoke to once, who sells manuscript leaves on EBay for significant financial gain. Selling manuscript leaves is no crime, but when these come from a whole manuscript sliced into the smallest possible sellable part, it should be. At best, it's unethical; at worst, cultural vandalism. Societies, book-sellers, EBay scourers should at the very least have the decency to seek profit by maintaining the intactness of a cogent collection or a single manuscript, or they are actively destroying what they ironically seek to benefit from.

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