Sarah Laskow: Libraries And Cities Are Terrible At Keeping Track of Art

image

The inside of a library’s catalog.(Image: Texas State Library/Flickr)

Sarah Laskow writes: Late in May, when the Boston Public Library was still missing a Rembrandt etching worth $30,000 and a 16th century Dürer print worth $600,000, the situation looked bad. More than a dozen staff members were searching through tens of thousands of prints and drawings, without any luck, and the local press was reporting on a recent audit that had scorched the library for its less-than-stellar inventory management. “It is critical that the BPL have an inventory report that should list each item it owns,” the auditors wrote. “This consolidated inventory list does not exist.”

“These collections are vast. If you’re talking about a couple hundred items, it’s easy to go through once a year and make sure everything’s there. But when you’re talking about millions of items…if it took you 2 minutes to inventory each time, a full inventory can take years.”

— Kara M. McClurken, who heads preservation services at University of Virginia Library.

Then, last week, just one day after the library’s president announced her resignation, the two prints turned up—just 80 feet from where they were supposed to be.

In Boston, the value of the prints that went missing was high, and as a result, the reaction—press coverage, police involvement—and the consequences were severe. But the problems identified in Boston are far from unique to this one library.

The British Library (Photo: Luke McKernan/Flickr)

The British Library (Photo: Luke McKernan/Flickr)

Across the country, in city art collections and special collections of public libraries, one-of-a-kind items are routinely misfiled, misplaced, lost or stolen. And sometimes, routine mistakes and slipshod documentation grow into a much more intractable problem, with large portions of public collections being managed by institutions who have no idea what’s in them and no full inventory of their holdings.

 “Librarians are trained to catalogue books and CDs. Art is an outlier. “With cutbacks, librarians are asked to do more with less, and artwork gets put on the back burner.”

— Camille Ann Brewer, the executive director of University of Chicago’ Black Metropolis Research Consortium

For instance, a library in Paterson, New Jersey, lost 20 pieces of antique furniture and bronzes and waited six years to report the loss to police. An Indiana library couldn’t find four paintings by the German artist Julius Moessel and never even tried to collect the insurance. An audit in Long Beach, California, found that about an eighth of the city-owned art collection could not be accounted for. The New York Public Library is missing a handful of maps dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries—and didn’t even notice it had lost one of Ben Franklin’s workbooks, until the person who inherited it offered to sell it back to the library. (The NYPL is currently suing for possession.) The Chicago Public Library has lost the vast majority of the 8,000 books, some of them now rare and valuable, that were donated to the city in 1871 and made up the library’s original collection. In 2011, the San Francisco Civic Art Collection wasn’t even sure how many pieces were in its collection. How did this problem first come to light? Well,  some of its valuable pieces were found basically just lying around in a dank, watery hospital basement.

The British Library (Photo: Luke McKernan/Flickr)

The British Library (Photo: Luke McKernan/Flickr)

These problems aren’t restricted to a city level, either. At the Library of Congress, the inspector general noted in a recent report that “there is no comprehensive inventory or condition statement which covers the Library’s collections.” An examination of six presidential libraries found that the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library had inventory information for only 20,000 of its 100,000 items. Read the rest of this entry »


Malcolm X’s Heirs Headed To Court To Block Publication Of Activist’s Diary

Black Nationalist leader and Nation of Islam spokesman Malcolm X in Oxford with Eric Abrahams, right, the Student Union president, before addressing university students on the subject of extremism and liberty, 3rd December 1964.  (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Black Nationalist leader and Nation of Islam spokesman Malcolm X in Oxford with Eric Abrahams, right, the Student Union president, before addressing university students on the subject of extremism and liberty, 3rd December 1964. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

NEW YORK (AP) — Heirs of Malcolm X have gone to court to stop a Chicago company from publishing a diary of the activist leader’s last year.

X Legacy says in papers filed in Manhattan federal court that Third World Press does not have the right to publish “The Diary of Malcolm X.”

Read the rest of this entry »


The New York Public Library’s Uncertain Future

A proposed renovation threatens one of the world’s great research institutions
The library’s iconic Main Building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. THE MUSEUM OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK/ART RESOURCE

The library’s iconic Main Building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd 

Stephen Eide writes: No place does more for more New Yorkers”—so claims the New York Public Library. Unlike most institutional boasts, this one has merit, because the library has long balanced unparalleled excellence with remarkably open access. Serving Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island—Brooklyn and Queens have their own separate library systems—the New York Public Library operates one of the world’s premier research institutions and a circulating system of 87 branches. The library’s research holdings far surpass those of any other public library in the nation and of most universities; access to the collection has been as deep a source of pride for the library as the breadth and depth of the collection itself. But now the library is on the cusp of enacting the most radical change in its 120-year history: under the Central Library Plan, as it’s been called, the library will sell two major facilities in midtown Manhattan and use the proceeds, plus city funds—$350 million in all—to renovate the iconic Main Building on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, which would retain its research function while also becoming the system’s central circulating branch.

Critics have attacked the plan’s design and scope and the lack of public input in formulating it. The library insists, though, that the renovation is necessary. “This is about improving services for our users—the public,” says David Offensend, the library’s chief operating officer. That claim seems dubious, at least for researchers. Even under the brightest scenario, the likely result would be an institution marginally more cost-effective but significantly downgraded from the research standard it has set during its illustrious history. Read the rest of this entry »