The Life of a Gift / Mary Seem

Last month, Chantal Sulkow reported on the NYTSL and ARLIS/NY-led event “Uncanny Valley: Acquisitions Processes between Selecting and Cataloging.” In her post, she touched on each of the speakers’ presentations. I would like to use this post to expand upon the Frick Art Reference Library’s contribution to the “Uncanny Valley” event: the issue of gifts.

Christina Peter and I spoke about two very different gifts and the impact that they both had on our acquisitions process. One donation was received as a part of an estate of a former Frick employee. The process of de-duplicating the titles and then the storage and disposal of the duplicate copies were the main struggles of the acquisition of this gift. Of the total titles included in the gift, we kept only 5% of the titles, as the rest were duplicates of titles already held in the Frick Art Reference Library. This made for a time-consuming – and a bit defeating – process of de-duplication but left us with the larger issue of storage and disposal of the duplicate titles. We are required to retain donated titles for three years, regardless of whether we want them or not, and so the duplicate titles had to sit in our vault until they could be assessed (and hopefully acquired) by book vendors who make regular visits to see our duplicate and unwanted titles. This donation serves as an example of how the processing of a gift does not end with the thank you note and an acknowledgement, but can continue for years afterward. The life of a gift beyond de-deduplication and acquisition is often ignored, but it can be the most onerous part of the process as more donations arrive and storage space remains at a premium.

This is not to say that every gift is a challenge. Some, such as the donation that I discussed during the “Uncanny Valley” event, can be remarkably fruitful. This particular gift helped to backfill a large swath of our collecting scope – namely those titles that address clocks and decorative timepieces. While we ended up keeping a large portion of this donation, with very little to contribute to the storage problem of the aforementioned gift, it did create new questions regarding our scope. We were inclined to keep several titles that were slightly peripheral to our scope because they were a part of the donation. Now we are left to decide whether we should begin to expand our holdings on these new topics. The Frick Art Reference Library’s Book Department has a weekly meeting to discuss potential new acquisitions and the questions relating to gifts and their scope are addressed in these meetings. Just as one gift can create new issues of storage, this gift created new questions about scope.

Donations, large and small, are a part of many libraries’ acquisitions processes, and yet they are rarely discussed. Hopefully this post has elucidated some of the issues relating to gifts and can open up a dialogue about the management of donations.

Mary Seem is the Assistant Acquisitions and Cataloging Librarian at the Frick Art Reference Library

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