Rare Books Could Become Financial Safety Net

Stacks of antique books line the walls of the Donahue Rare Book Room. Some professors worry the books may be pawned off to meet financial obligations, a claim which University President Rev. Stephen Privett, S.J. does not foresee happening. (Melissa Stihl|Foghorn)

The USF administration is undertaking a plan to protect itself from being further impacted by the nation’s deep recession, though some faculty members are wary of this plan and the practices it would entail.

According to University President Rev. Stephen Privett S.J., USF is sifting through a range of university assets and compiling a list of items that may be expendable in an economic emergency.

“We are not selling anything right now,” said Privett, responding to a group of faculty members upset over the rumor that historic items were being consigned to auction houses to combat economic woes. “Let’s dispel that rumor right now,” he said.

The possibility of selling items from the Donahue Rare Book Room in the Gleeson Library has garnered the strongest responses from faculty members.

USF history professor Martin A. Claussen is one of several faculty members concerned about the future of USF’s collection of historic items, noting that USF has already consigned a collection of prints by Renaissance artist Albecht Durer to an auction house.

“Selling parts of the library collection in order to pay current costs is like burning the furniture to keep warm,” Claussen said.

Privett insists that, if the items compiled from the Rare Book Room were ever sold, they would be “non-book items, duplicate volumes, or single volumes, not part of a series or collection.”

As for the Durer collection, Privett said, “They (the prints) were discovered by accident. We have an art gallery, not a museum. We didn’t have a place for them.”

The Durer collection has not been sold yet, but Privett said the money would go to an endowment to support the library, and much of the money made from the Rare Book Room items, if ever sold, would go towards renovating the room and protecting its items. Claussen however is not satisfied with this reasoning.

“Selling items in the Rare Book Room to pay for renovations that would keep them safe? That logic sounds odd,” he said.

Claussen is also concerned with items being sold that were given to USF as gifts, a problem not unique to USF.

According to an April 23 article in the Wall Street Journal, cash starved colleges are selling their radio stations’ frequencies and pawning off paintings to pay their way through financial plights.  The journal also reported that in extreme cases, some colleges are using endowments for purposes not originally intended by the donor, another concern Claussen expressed.

Trinity College Professor of Business Gerald Gunderson took his complaint to the Connecticut attorney general’s office when he learned that the college planned to use part of a $9 million endowment from  investing tycoon Shelby Cullom Davis to fund scholarships for international students, a move that Professor Gunderson believes is a violation of the late Mr. Davis’ wishes. According to Gunderson, he was summoned into the President’s office where he was called a “scoundrel” and his job was threatened.

Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. is involved in litigation concerning plans they had to sell paintings donated to the university by acclaimed artist Georgia O’Keeffe.

USF has not reached the private meeting, name-calling stage that Trinity College has, but the university has taken note of such events and prefers preparation over future predicament, though Privett says USF is doing well at the moment and will never disregard the wishes of donors.

“I have a moral and legal obligation to honor the wishes of the donors,” said Privett, who jokingly added that he wished he had Georgia O’Keeffe paintings to sell.

The concern over the list may have more to do with USF’s recent actions in similar situations. Years ago, a former USF library director discarded a number of science and math books from the Gleeson collection without input from the faculty. This led to a faculty uprising that gave birth to a coalition of librarians, faculty, and staff who set procedures for weeding through collections. The procedure allows professors from effected departments to view and make amendments to the list.

Professor Claussen believes any books from the Rare Book Room should follow this same procedure; Privett cautiously agrees.

“What [professors] don’t know  is I know when and how often these books are checked out and used,” said Privett in support of his point that professors who have never used the materials should not require consultation.

“Should professors who use them have a say? I think so,” he said. “I’ll leave it to the library to handle that.”
In response to the Foghorn’s request for an interview, Gleeson Library Dean Tyrone Cannon said Father Privett would be speaking for the library in this matter.

Father Privett also questioned how many students visit the Rare Book Room.  In a poll conducted by the Foghorn of 43 USF students, 53% (23 students) said they have visited the Rare Book Room at least once, though less than half of those 23 students said they have visited the room more than once.   Of the 20 that responded no, six of them said they did not know what the Rare Book Room was.

As it stands the list is being compiled and according to Privett the possibility is always there. “Never say never,” he said. “It’s possible that they could be sold one day. It’s also possible that one day we may sell Lone Mountain.”

45 thoughts on “Rare Books Could Become Financial Safety Net

  1. Rev. Stephen Privett’s comment with respect to the possible sale of rare books that “if ever sold, (the proceeds) would go towards renovating the room and protecting its items” seems to fly in the face of the vaunted tradition of Jesuit logic. Selling rare books in order to renovate a room to properly protect those same rare books is a difficult concept for this class of ’63 grad to comprehend. Have the rules of logic that we were taught way back when been revised during the intervening years?

    As for possibly selling off the Lone Mountain property, that makes absolutely no sense whatever. If the USF financial situation is really so dire, possibly President Obama can find TARP funds to help out (of course the gov’t would want the right to fire the school president, change the board of directors, and have the government position with respect to abortion adopted as part of a revised Catholic doctrine, but hey, ya gotta do what ya gotta do).

  2. I am the author of this piece and I interviewed Father Privett. His comments about wishing to have Georgia O’Keefe paintings to sell and possibly selling Lone Mountain were said in humor.
    The Georgia O’Keefe line in the story is preceded by “I have a moral and legal obligation to honor the wishes of the donors,” said Privett, who jokingly added…” etc.
    His quote about Lone Mountain possibly being sold was in relation to him saying “never say never” when I asked him about ever selling the books. He used Lone Mountain as a sarcastic way to say that anything is possible.
    I thought his tone was evident in the way the story was written, but apparently the mood of the interview was not adequately portrayed as the two quotes have been taken, from my view, out of context numerous times already. At no point in the interview was there a serious conversation about Lone Mountain being sold.
    I appreciate the comments and references to the piece as well as the passion people have for this topic. Clearly this is a serious issue that must be resolved, but it is also imperative that people’s words are correctly understood.

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  4. I really dont understand how a rare book could be seen as financial safety net. In most cases during bad economic times people dont really buy rare collectibles. Or do they?

  5. “Selling parts of the library collection in order to pay current costs is like burning the furniture to keep warm,” Claussen said.

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