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The following is an excerpt from the third chapter of Collecting, Curating, And Researching Writers’ Libraries, A Handbook, edited by Richard Oram and Joseph Nicholson (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). This chapter deals with the role of the bookseller; other chapters deal with the roles of librarians, curators, and researchers, with accounts of some libraries, a list of authors’ libraries preserved in public and private hands, and interviews conducted by Oram and MacDonnell with five well-known authors who describe candidly just how they organize and use their books.

In this chapter MacDonnell outlines the five-stage process a bookseller employs when assessing a writer’s library: defining what is in the library; assessing its salability; providing valuation; preparing the library for sale; and finally, negotiating its sale. The full article, as well as information on how to order a discounted copy, can be found here.


III. The First Order of Business: Defining the Library

A bookseller’s first order of business when dealing with an author’s library is defining just what comprises the author’s library. This sounds simple, but books are often mixed with magazines and miscellaneous papers, and the day may soon be coming when an author might have more titles stored on his e-reader than on his shelves. An author might also have listened to audio books, now lurking on CDs or MP3s in some nearby device like a laptop, or iPhone, etc. Distinguishing an author’s library from a “household” library can be tricky. Spouses, children, relatives, and others in a household may lay claim to portions of the library. In many households, libraries are scattered around the house and are the mutual domain of every family member, some of whom may have strong feelings of possession for certain volumes. Even if an author’s library is clearly segregated from other household books (and magazine and papers and e-books, etc.) the books an author chooses to give his spouse, children, and others, may be just as revealing and historically valuable as the books an author kept on his own shelves. These books are not the property of the bookseller, who must respect the wishes of those who own them. If possession is nine-tenths of the law, then it’s also nine-tenths of the library as well, and as often as not, a library is scattered in more than one location. Libraries are often divided among different rooms, floors, or buildings, and some libraries are divided among a primary residence and vacation homes, and some books may be in storage—a nearby climate-controlled facility if luck holds, but more often an attic or garage or barn. Libraries can find their ways into other places as well: the attics and garages of friends and neighbors, on loan to libraries or historical societies, or at a place of business. Retrieving libraries from these various locales can involve legal, diplomatic, and physical challenges.

Most of us would define a library as the books and reading materials on a shelf or otherwise physically present in some form of media, but scholars may want to know everything an author read (or may have read) and have a keen interest in knowing, besides the books an author owned himself, what books he borrowed and the subscriptions he may have had to different online magazines, his favorite websites, and any listservs he read. The things that influenced an author are not always sitting on the shelf waiting to be found, and if every room full of books were viewed as a crime scene it would be a severely compromised scene with much of the evidence missing or tampered with, and a long list of suspects with different motivations. Extracting, retrieving, gathering, and assembling an author’s library can be as complicated as reconstructing the scattered shards of a Greek vase. Booksellers are often viewed as agents of dispersal, but booksellers just as often find themselves the victims of dispersals by others, beginning with the author himself.  


IV. The Second Order of Business: Assessing Salability

Once the parameters of an author’s library are established, an assessment must be made to determine the salability of the library. If a bookseller has the funds and faith to purchase a library outright, and the family agrees to a sale, this task is somewhat simplified for the bookseller who is then free to act on his own behalf once he owns the library. But with an author’s library, the bookseller is just as likely to act as an agent for the sale, and the laws of agency require an agent to represent the fiduciary interests of the property’s owner(s). Fiduciary duty, simply put, means to act in the best financial interests of the property owner. These interests may sometimes conflict with historic preservation, or the desires and interests of libraries, collectors, and scholars. Most booksellers, by the nature of the profession itself, have a deeply felt sense of history and scholarship, and will advise families accordingly, but as owners of the property, families have the right—and often the inclination—to put monetary gain above all other considerations. On the other hand, when a family has already decided to take a course of action that may best serve scholarship and history but diminish their financial gain, fiduciary duty requires a bookseller acting as their agent to advise them of this fact. Likewise, if a family intends to impose restrictions on use, or special housing requirements, or if the materials need extensive conservation work, or if copyrights would restrict the publication of some materials, the bookseller is obligated to explain the impact that these factors would have on salability.

Depending on the needs or desires of a prospective buyer (or buyers) the inclusion or exclusion of some materials can affect the salability of a library. Some buyers might consider magazines, e-books, and even unannotated books a negative, while another buyer may only want certain portions of a library. If, for example, a collector wants only annotated books, and a library on a limited budget dearly wants everything else, and the family insists on maximizing their financial gain from the sale, a bookseller would fail his fiduciary duty to the family if he did not divide an author’s library among two (or more) such buyers. If a family or executor of an estate wishes to maximize the monetary gain from a library it is possible that selling the books and related papers individually may be the most profitable mode of sale. Although the historical or research value of a library is greater than the sum of its parts, the monetary value may be greater when broken up for sale, either singly, or in small groups that reflect market demands. But each library and owner is unique, and a library of a certain size or certain ratio of components (high and low value materials, books and papers, for example) may be more easily and profitably sold en bloc.  


Click here to read the article in its entirety.