Rare Book Monthly

Articles - November - 2009 Issue

Daniel in the Lions' Den

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Dr. Belanger in 2007


By Bruce McKinney

The history of libraries and rare books came to San Francisco in the person of Terry Belanger to deliver a talk at the California Book Club on Monday evening, October 5th. Seventy-one souls, many fire breathing advocates of the world as Mr. Belanger sees it, came away rewarded with a strong dose of humor and perspective. Who ever said or thought that old books are dry has not seen them through Dr. Belanger's eyes nor heard them parsed and phrased into pauses and bon mots in the Belanger manner. He is himself a work of art. This is his fifth talk in San Francisco since he began his speaking tours in 1983.

Mr. Belanger's career has roughly ghosted the rise and now uncomfortable transition that institutional libraries, as the paramount collectors of works on paper in the United States, find themselves in today. In the heady ascent of books in the twentieth century from open shelves to open envy, locked doors and controlled access, Mr. Belanger years ago emerged as honorary mayor of rare book librarians by delivering, in a clear and consistent voice, perspective and advice. To the village of rare book libraries, their librarians and the dealers whose livelihoods have improved as budgets and institutional collecting have become, to quote auction description, highly significant, he is the important voice. In addressing a nice crowd at 800 Powell Street in San Francisco he spoke on the subject: Eating the Seed Corn: Reflections on Institutional Sales of Rare Books. He directly confronted the issue of deaccession, cautioning against short term thinking in a field judged long term.

Mr. Belanger's prepared remarks were 45 minutes and his after-speech Q & A another 55. In his talk he spoke of the role and responsibilities of institutions that receive books and related materials. He did so in a general way and in the follow-up question period called upon Father Stephen A. Privet, President of the University of San Francisco, to apologize for selling material from the University's Donohue Rare Book Collection to pay for improvements to the physical plant. For those unaware of the earlier controversy hell was raised giving Father Privet the opportunity to see Dante's Inferno up close. Dr. Belanger, in his remarks five months after The University of San Francisco's disputed sale of library material, called upon Father Privet to repent and publicly apologize for forgetting or ignoring the institution's obligation to keep that which it received as gifts, in perpetuity.

Dr. Belanger is perhaps today's foremost advocate in the United States of the rule that material, once gifted to a library, becomes subject to a higher standard than even the donor may have imposed. In his view material may later be deaccessioned only after careful review and then only in a prescribed way. To paraphrase his thinking, for material to enter a library is voluntary, to exit requires consideration of importance and access across the universe. Even for libraries themselves this is a potentially tough standard.

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