Marginalia and scholarly libraries

In the National section of today’s NYT, a piece by Dirk Johnson on marginalia (“Bibliophiles Fear a Dim Future For Scribbling in the Margins” in my print edition, “Book Lovers Fear Dim Future for Notes in the Margins” on line), the hook being that the shift to digital reading makes it harder for valuable marginalia to be preserved.

As a life-long marginalist, I’m concerned myself. And I wonder what will happen to my scribbled-on library.

Some readers of this blog know that over the years I have amassed a huge library (with marginal notes in many of these volumes). Back in the very old days, a large personal scholarly library was a significant asset, and academically oriented libraries would pay considerable sums for such collections. But now physical books (unless they are rare or their marginalia are associated with someone of great fame) are a drug on the market; unless donors can supply funds to preserve the collections, the recipient libraries will just trash all the volumes that are duplicates of items already in their holdings, and certainly won’t keep together topical collections (like my sublibrary of books on English grammar, style, and usage). Libraries are working to shed physical books, not acquire them.

So my huge personal library has gone, in my lifetime, from being a huge asset (so calculated in figuring the value of my estate) to being a puzzling liability. In my present will, my books go to the Stanford library (after my daughter takes anything she wants), but in the current state of affairs, that just means they’ll be dispersed on the winds.

I still buy books. I love books, and I write notes in them. But now I don’t know what’s going to become of them.

Not long ago, a linguist colleague who’s created his own substantial library and would like to see it kept together wrote me for advice. I don’t know what to tell him.


5 Responses to “Marginalia and scholarly libraries”

  1. IrrationalPoint Says:

    Would there be more chance of the books being kept together if they were given to a less well-funded institution either locally to you, or in a developing country, that is less likely to have the books already? Obviously you wouldn’t have the emotional connection to other institutions that you do to Stanford, and I don’t know what the practicalities are if the books have to travel significant distance to get to the institution that they are intended for, so it may not be a viable proposition.


  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    Useful comment from Michael Palmer on Facebook:

    My advice now to people considering leaving collections of print materials to institutions is to look not at the institution’s general library, but at its Special Collections department. As library general collections become increasingly electronic, printed materials that meet an institution’s particular collecting interests are transferred to special collections departments. However, not all libraries, even those as big as Stanford, have special collections in all fields. If Stanford Special Collections already has, or is developing, a special collection in linguistics, they could well use yours, with its unusual size and depth, essentially complete. If, however, Stanford Special Collections does not aggressively collect in linguistics (or in your area/s of linguistics), you might consider leaving your collection to another institution, perhaps a smaller one, whose library Special Collections department is looking to create a new, or beef up an already existing, linguistics collection. Special Collections at such a smaller institution might appreciate more what it is getting, and your collection might get greater use. I also recommend that a prospective donor contact the intended Special Collections department while still alive (well, it’s hard to do so when you’re dead, but you know what I mean), and discuss the intended donation, rather than “surprise” the department post mortem. That way the department can indicate to the donor exactly what it intends to do with the donation, and, if it’s to form the nucleus of a new subject collection or a significant addition of an already existing one, the department can adjust its acquisitions in the subject (to avoid obtaining duplicates) until it has physical possession of the materials, most probably not until after the donor’s death.

    Another approach I suggest is to divide the collection into meaningful “chunks”, and leave these chunks to colleagues, students, or others starting out in the field, to add to or even start their own personal research collections.

    When dealing with my father’s fairly substantial collection I took a third approach, a hybrid of the two I’ve mentioned. The library at the college where my father taught (which now collects only in certain areas, and does not have a general collection) accepted those parts of his collection on the subjects in which it collects and (for the college archives) those volumes on other subjects that include his marginalia. The rest I have over the years dispersed (and continue to disperse) among former colleagues and students, and to people starting out in the field (most of whom, almost 40 years after my father’s death, have never even heard of him). (And while we’re on the subject, if you know someone just starting an academic career and interested in Classical Latin and comparative medieval literature, let me know.)

  3. Tweets that mention Marginalia and scholarly libraries « Arnold Zwicky's Blog -- Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Benjamin Lukoff, Jon Fernquest. Jon Fernquest said: Book Lovers Fear Dim Future for Notes in the Margins – NYTimes Zwicky: via @dialect @lukobe […]

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    More in praise of marginalia in the NYT Magazine of March 6: Sam Anderson’s “Riff” column, ‘What I Really Want Is Someone Rolling Around in the Text’, here.

  5. Ernie Schell Says:

    My two cents (probably $5 with inflation) on books and libraries

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