Sunday, 7 October 2012

Yet another sale of historic books (Wigan edition)

An article from the local press has drawn attention to the sale of five early printed books belonging to Wigan Public Libraries. According the article these include incunabula and other rare books, including the eight-leaf Conradus' Brevis annotatio in errores scribentium S. Augustinum fuisse eremitam ([Rome: Johannes Schoemberger, not before 15 Nov. 1483]), which sold for £5,000 and was the known copy in the British Isles (I don't who has bought it, so it may yet still be available here, but then, it may not be).*

The saddest thing about this story is the quotation from Pete Gascoigne, executive director of culture on Wigan council, which demonstrates a disappointing (but sadly not necessarily unexpected in a council official) lack of understanding of the issues at hand.  I'm cross enough about it that I'm going to look at a couple of his points in detail.

Gascoigne states:
[A] decision was taken to sell some antiquarian books that are have received little or no public interest since they were acquired and are not intrinsically linked to the borough’s heritage, in that, they contain no information relating to Wigan or its people.

This sale will mean Wigan and Leigh retain a relevant modern library service for the people of this borough - not one where books sit on shelves gathering dust because they are of no relevance or interest to the majority of its people.
It's very narrow-minded to believe that a collection of books is "not intrinsically linked to the borough's heritage" simply because their content is not related to the area.  The ISTC records 82 incunables (pre-1501 printed books) in Wigan public libraries, and the ESTC a further 83 early printed books from the UK (or other English-speaking countries) or in English.  This isn't a bad haul, especially of incunables: one wonders what the story is behind their arrival in the Wigan public library service.  There's quite likely a story behind their ending up with this library, and that story might well demonstrate that they are, in fact, "intrinsically linked".  What if, for example, an important local businessman collected them and donated them to the town? That would surely demonstrate a link.

I say "what if" as it's not straightforward to find out much about these books.  A quick look at the library catalogue doesn't reveal any records for early printed books, the ESTC records don't include any provenance information, and I haven't tracked down a printed catalogue either. One fears that there's no good record of what's held at all. 

This lack of documentation might just explain why the books are (or were) "have received little or no public interest since they were acquired".  It doesn't take a genius to realise that if no-one knows that something is in a library, no-one will access it.  The onus is on the library service to promote its collections.  Yes, records on ESTC may attract the attention of a few serious scholars, but that's only one rather small segment of a much larger potential audience, and even they might not make the effort if you've no information at all on your library webpages.

Promoting collections take time, expertise, an understanding of what you've got.  But it's enormously worthwhile in the long-run, and provides benefit to institutions and communities far beyond the special collections corner of the library. 

Other public libraries (Manchester springs to mind) are doing great things in using their special collections in exciting ways as part of " a relevant modern library service". Yes, Manchester library is bigger and more obviously historic than Wigan. Dustiness and neglect isn't the natural state of old books: the responsibility to sweep away the dust lies with councils and library managements.

*It's worth nothing that £5,000 is quite a lot of money for a 16-page book, but it's not necessarily all that much money for a 500+-year-old book, and it's only a drop in the ocean of money required to implement self-service machines in one or more libraries.


  1. Thanks for this.

    One thought that no one has brought up, to add to the difficulty of the situation:

    I have viewed literally all of the books Wigan has put up for sale/auction so far, at various Bonhams Locations,Knightsbridge, and most recently Oxford in their 27 November Printed Books, Maps, & Photographs sale.

    One thing that can be said for them is that they have not been well looked after over the past few decades. The majority of books wearing Wigan bookplates are literally crumbling out of their bindings, there were shards of paper in meteoric rings around the bookshelves on all sides of the room, and the red rot was inescapable as well as the strong smell of damp, with occasionally fresh looking mould. Leather bindings were in pieces, with one or both covers completely detached,and while vellum is obviously in one piece most of the time the text block is completely ripped out.


    In theory I agree that the books DO have intrinsic value to the Wigan library, should stay there, and that the library should do more to emphasize its fantastic and unique accessions history. The fact that such an amazing collection of rarities could be built over time from local donations is something at least I personally would love to learn about from Wigan.

    And as you say, it would be nice to see a little more effort on the part of the library in bringing their assets to the attention of potential readers/researchers.

    But the bigger problem that's looming over all of this is about responsibility, and preservation. And I do not think libraries should have books they can't adequately take care of.

    If the Wigan's copy of a book is infested with mould and that book happens to be the only recorded copy, that's a huge problem. It's much more serious than a library that directs you to look at the microfilm instead of the original, it's a library that forces you to rely on the microfilm as the original turns to dust. We should be debating on how to most effectively advocate for conservation practices in little libraries like Wigan. Or larger libraries in the region (Rylands, etc) should be contracting out their conservation services.

    Otherwise, if Wigan wasn't going to take care of their holdings, they should have gotten rid of them ages ago to prevent some of the damage that's already taken hold of them. It's not the case for every library that feels forced to sell its books, but Wigan is by no means standalone.

    This context makes sale a lesser of several evils, because at least sale ensures some degree of responsibility will be taken in keeping them in good condition. No one in today's market buys books they don't care for properly.

    I hope this opinion doesn't make me too unpopular - I just think that conservation is an underlying problem that doesn't get coverage when we debate the ethics of putting historic collections for sale, and it should be.

    1. Hi Brooke,

      Thanks for such an interesting and useful comment. I can see absolutely that, in pragmatic terms, it's better for the books that they're owned by people or institutions that will care for them properly. It's terrible that the Wigan books had got into such a state, and horrible that this can happen (and does, repeatedly, I fear) with almost no-one noticing, and very little censure of the authorities responsible.

      My gripe with the Wigan sale is not so much about the individual books, but about the principal of the thing. A council shouldn't be able to disperse cultural assets like this without better, and expert, scrutiny (just as they shouldn't be allowed to let cultural collections get into such bad states). And if books are to be dispersed it could at least happen without spurious comments about how they're not relevant, or that the local people (or scholars) aren't interested in them - when in reality there was no publicity of them. And so on.

      I hope that this opinion doesn't make you unpopular. I think that we're arguing from the same fundamental position: rare books and collections thereof deserve care, cataloguing, and careful use.


  2. Here's grist to your mill - given in memory of a vicar of Wigan