The St. Louis Public Library is fortunate to have a very special architectural collection that is a sometimes awkward hybrid — a restricted rare book room that lives in a busy urban public library. The nucleus of the Steedman Architectural Library was given to SLPL in 1928; the donor, George Fox Steedman, also paid to have a special room designed and built especially to house it. Some of the most influential and beautiful architecture books ever published were part of this original group, such as early editions of Vitruvius, Alberti, Palladio, Frank Lloyd Wright, and a 21-volume set of Piranesi’s works. Mr. Steedman also set up a modest endowment that can only be used to purchase new books for the collection. His intention was to give local architects access to the greatest books of architecture, thereby inspiring them to design great works in St. Louis. We allow architects, architectural historians, and other serious researchers access to the books. The room is not open for browsing, and patrons cannot stay in it by themselves. For more background, and over 400 images of the books, check out http://exhibits.slpl.org/steedman/index.asp.
One of my duties as head of the Fine Arts Department is to be in charge of this collection, and it has been my privilege and joy add to it during my 25 years here. There are many factors to consider when seeking worthy additions. A “Steedman Book” has to be highly important in some way, whether it is the definitive monograph on an architect or building, an historic treatise that changed the course of architecture, or a lavish book documenting a body of work. Pattern books or other works that were used by working architects, that inform our understanding of architectural history, are a valued component of the library as well.
Of course, I must stay within my budget each year. That has varied widely over the years, depending on interest rates and even some institutional politics. And, the original donation was so rich and deep, and my predecessors made such wise additions, that it is sometimes difficult to find truly important titles to add.
When I have money to spend, I first check the listings of our current or former ARLIS/NA vendor supporters such as Peter Bernett, Eric Chiam Kline, Ars Libri, Michael Shamansky, and Marilyn Braiterman. I have bought from other antiquarian dealers who specialize in architecture, such as The Bookpress, Ltd. I try to buy most frequently from Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America members; the ABAA website is a rich resource for items for sale and for comparison shopping.
I can’t forget new books, though, for they can be bargains in this context. The price of an expensive new book about an influential contemporary architect, published by someone such as Taschen, Rizzoli, or Monacelli Press, may look fairly steep today, but when it goes out of print, its price on the secondary market will soar. I’ve also found some wonderful newly published titles in the Exhibits Hall at ARLIS/NA annual conferences.
Although it is definitely a challenge, I greatly enjoy the wonderful people and beautiful books that I have been able to get to know while developing this great collection.
–Suzy Frechette (email@example.com)