An Interview with Terry Belanger of the Rare Book School,<br>Recipient of $500,000 MacArthur Award
- by Michael Stillman
He went on to say, "In the future, readers are increasingly going to have direct online access to electronic text and data files containing the materials they require; and increasingly, they will perceive that they do not ever need and do not ever want access in printed form to the bulk of this material - a circumstance already routinely the case with users of large online databases." And, in anticipation of what Google and others are doing fourteen years later, he comments, "It seems inevitable that soon enough the texts of practically everything that anybody is interested in, new or old, poetry or prose, popular or arcane, boring or interesting, English or Sanskrit, is going to be available online... He cautioned that the institutions that house rare book libraries would become less interested in storing massive amounts of paper, or as serving, in effect, as museums. Today, that locomotive of change he predicted, which was just starting to climb the mountain in 1991, appears to have reached the crest and is poised to accelerate full speed down the other side. Rare book libraries will need to justify their roles to administrators who are short on money and may not fully appreciate what they do. No wonder Mr. Belanger today says, "It's going to be tough."
Finally we asked about the recent spate of book and map thefts from rare book libraries. Would this force a change in the way they conduct their business? Interestingly, Mr. Belanger didn't think there was an increase at all. In fact, despite the recent high level of publicity, he feels that theft is actually decreasing. "Theft has been a problem in rare book and reference libraries ever since they first opened their doors," says Mr. Belanger, "and I have no sense - pace the recent map thefts, nasty as they are - that the rate of theft is increasing. I think, in fact, that the theft of valuable materials at major institutions is decreasing, in considerable part at least thanks to TV surveillance and the now routine practice of creating video records of rare book room activity.
"The Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (RBMS, the folks who do the annual pre-conference) of the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL, a division of the American Library Association) has been working with the ABAA for decades in setting up reporting systems for stolen material, and several international reporting systems are now also in place. We're still losing a lot of material out of circulating stacks, and we need to do much better in restricting unsupervised access to materials with, um, eBay sales potential."
For those interested in learning more about the Rare Book School, their web address is www.virginia.edu/oldbooks. Courses are available year around, with many conveniently held during the summer months. One-week concentrated courses are offered so those with full-time jobs can still attend.
For those interested in Mr. Belanger's most prophetic 1991 Malkin lecture, you may find it online at http://palimpsest.stanford.edu/byform/mailing-lists/exlibris/1991/12/msg00116.html. Anyone involved with rare book libraries who missed it the first time should read it now, as the issues are even more urgent today than when the address was first delivered.