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November 5, 2013updated 01 Feb 2016 12:33pm

The educated philanthropist invests in libraries

By Sam Leith

Author: Sam Leith

The words above, as any fule kno, are what it says on Shakespeare’s tomb. If Shakespeare’s curse had applied to his books as well as his bones, however, there’d be a supernatural reckoning in store for the people who run the University of London.

Towards the end of August it emerged that — in order, apparently, to fund acquisitions in 20th- and 21st-century literary manuscripts –plans had been made to sell the university’s set of Shakespeare’s first folios at auction (four of 36 printed editions of his plays prepared by two of his actors in 1623, after his death). Support was sought from scholars and a ‘public consultation’ promised; but at the same time it appeared that the process was some way along: the folios had been sized up by Bonhams and a date in November already appointed for their sale. This leaves a rather nasty taste in the mouth as far as philanthropy is concerned.

Among the objections to the sale — quite aside from the blow to scholarship/family silver issues involved — was that the library acquired the books as part of Sir Louis Sterling’s 1956 bequest, which expressly stipulated that they should be ‘permanently housed in the University Library’. There was a question over the moral right to dispose of them, therefore — as well as an obvious pragmatic issue about whether future bequests would dry up if the benefactors in question had no confidence that the terms of their bequests would be honoured.

Thanks to an outcry among academics, the university has backed down and is now ‘examining alternative ways of investing in the collection’. I can’t say I’m sorry that the university’s plans have been thwarted. Libraries by their nature are, or should be, conservative institutions. Sending important documents into private hands is a blow to the public good, and the academic laws of thermodynamics tell us that dispersing collections is a process that pretty much goes one way and one way only.

The bard sell

But there’s a disagreement of principle going on here, too. On the one hand there are those for whom metrics of footfall and access and outreach are prime: if the sale of one or two dusty, seldom consulted and easily digitised objects can pay for a new roof, or a programme of acquisition in an area currently enjoying a burst of scholarly popularity, or what have you, then that is a reasonable exchange. In this account of things, libraries are a public utility, like leisure centres.

The opposite view is that it is precisely those objects that are dustiest and most seldom consulted that it is most important to preserve. A library is not a utility but a record: a culture’s textual memory. Scholarly enthusiasms come and go, and if you shape your permanent collection according to what gets the most bums on seats this year, you distort the past and do a dreadful wrong to the future. You’re no longer in the business of curating an archive but of creating a canon.

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Of course these are caricatures. Every archive is, one way and another, a canon. And funding for research libraries in the humanities isn’t getting any more abundant: there’s no point in having every book ever published if they can’t be properly catalogued, preserved and made available to readers. So nobody sensible holds either view absolutely. They offer two conflicting accounts of what a library is actually for, and they are both right.

Buying a legacy

So, my HNW friends, with your copious supplies of what Damon Runyon used to call potatoes. This seems to me to be something that — because as sure as eggs is eggs the issue’s going to arise again — is worth your keeping an eye on. I know endowing wings of this and statues of that can be attractive: look on my works, and all that. But think about books and libraries. Here is not the built fabric of cities but, as I say, the very textual memory of our culture, the brain of our civilisation.

Fantasy scenario: imagine a set of Shakespeare folios comes up for sale. This one, for instance, was estimated to fetch £3.5-4 million. That’s a bargain price to put your own stamp on the preservation of something at the heart of the history of our literature; something that once vanished into private hands would never come back.

You could swoop in and buy the folios. You could — chef’s perks! — have a gander at them. Then you could return them to the collection on permanent loan until your death, at which point your will would make the loan a bequest. They say money can’t buy class, but buying Shakespeare’s folios and donating them to the nation would be as close to a refutation of that view as you’re likely to find.

You might be wise, though, to slap another couple of grand making sure the will’s watertight so that some enterprising curator down the line doesn’t get ideas about ‘what he would have wanted’. Alternatively, you could simply inscribe on your gravestone: ‘Curst be he that moves my tomes.’

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