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What Shall I Do with All my Books?

The literature of book collecting is filled with encouragement and advice about what to buy and when to buy. Rarely discussed, however, is the proper disposition of a library, which may well be the more critical question. [1] A gathering of important and valuable books carries with it the responsibility to plan for their eventual disposition. 

Book collecting may be seen as a continuing process of acquiring and dispersing individual books or collections, holding them in one's library until they are exchanged for better copies, or until one's collecting interest or personal circumstances change. The three D's--debt, death, and divorce--are often the driving forces that present opportunities to make decisions about the disposition of libraries and archives. 

A library is generally formed over a period of years, often without significant outlay of funds at any one time. There are exceptions, of course, when a collector buys in quantity and when the chosen field is a popular and relatively expensive one, such as color-plate books, early travel and exploration, and the classics of medicine and science. 

As books pass into and out of our lives, usually there is no great concern unless they have high emotional or financial value. Books with interesting provenance due to their earlier association with an important person or loved one will usually be retained for sentimental reasons without regard to their market value. 

Sales to Dealers and at Auction

Given the close relationship that develops between book collectors and dealers, many collectors turn first to their trusted dealers for guidance. Arrangements can be made to return books to the market through the dealer. A profit may be realized from the sale of a collection to the trade if the books were chosen wisely and if the collection was formed over a number of years, thus allowing time for market values to advance. If, however, top dollar was paid and the collection was recently formed, a resale to a dealer may be at a loss. While there is much variation, generally dealers prefer to buy at thirty to fifty percent of retail. If the books are rare and the dealer has a steady demand for the titles at generally rising prices, a higher percentage of retail may be paid. 

Collaboration between dealers and collectors is best represented by the offering of significant collections through well designed and researched catalogs that memorialize the collector's efforts. The best catalogs provide an historical account of the collection's development and individually describe and price each of the more important titles. 

Often the most significant collections are sold at auction. Within the past decade the most notable single-owner sales were of the libraries formed by Estelle Doheny, sold by Christie's [1987-1989] and the great library formed by H. Bradley Martin, sold by Sotheby's [1989-1990]. Both sales were watershed events, returning to circulation distinguished copies of great rarities of fifteenth-century printing, medieval and renaissance manuscripts, western Americana, ornithology, literature, fine bindings, and fine printing.

Gifts to Libraries and Museums

Other than sales to dealers and at auction, the third most common option of placing a private collection is to sell or give it to a library or museum. President Bill Clinton's 1993 Budget Reconciliation package contains a change in the tax law reinstating tax deductions for gifts at full fair-market value, thereby dramatically encouraging donations to cultural institutions. 

The Honorable Daniel P. Moynihan, Democrat of New York and [former] chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, was instrumental in revising the law. He cites a significant decline in donations to libraries and museums from 1987 to 1990 when the tax break for gifts expired. A sharp rise in donations resulted when the deduction was temporarily restored during an eighteen-month window in 1991 and 1992. "We went through what the scientists would call a natural experiment when the break was taken away in 1986," Senator Moynihan explained. "Gifts of objects of art just dried up. Bang! They stopped." [2] 

In the new law, gifts can be deducted at their present market value and do not incur a capital gains tax. Retroactive to June 1992, the law frees gifts from the limiting alternative minimum tax introduced in 1986. Provisions also have been expanded to include not only gifts of personal property like books and paintings, but also intangibles such as royalty rights, stocks to colleges, and land to nature conservancies. In order to minimize disputes, the Internal Revenue Service was also mandated to develop a method for taxpayers to agree in advance with the IRS on the value of donations. 

In addition to tax deductions, there are other advantages to giving one's personal collection to a library or museum. 

1. Personal support for and identification with a public institution. Former House Speaker James C. Wright gave his entire political archive and professional library to Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, thus strengthening numerous academic departments and providing a forum for continuing dialogue of current events and public policy. 

2. Maintaining a comprehensive collection to facilitate research. The Franklin Weston Williams Sam Houston Collection of private executive documents of Houston's second administration of the government of the Republic of Texas was preserved by Mr. Williams, grandson of General Sam Houston and Margaret Lea Houston. The collection was presented to Rice University in Houston, Texas, by Mr. Williams' daughter, Mrs. Charlotte Williams Darby of Houston. 

3. Continuing a history of association with the receiving institution. Mrs. Hazel Ransom donated the library formed by her late husband, Harry Ransom, Chancellor Emeritus of The University of Texas System, to The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin. 

4. Enhancing an institution's academic curricula. The Center of American History at The University of Texas at Austin acquired San Antonio photographer Tom Wright's collection of 200,000 photographs and negatives documenting the history of Rock Music from the mid-1950s onwards. The Wright Collection increases the research potential of the Center's extensive holdings of both music and photography. 

5. Establishing an entirely new focus for scholarship. The formation of the Southwestern Writers Collection at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas, under the guidance of Bill and Sally Wittliff and Richard Holland marks the beginning of a comprehensive resource for the study of Texas literature and history. 

The collector and his family thus have viable options for redirecting the fruit of one's collecting activities. These include cash through sales or tax deductions through gifts. In either case, the books will be shared with others, continuing vicariously the joys of the collector. 


This article was first published in the Book Club of Texas Newsletter and reprinted in Manuscripts, the journal of the Manuscript Society. 

1. While these comments discuss the collecting of books, they are relevant to other forms of collecting, including historical documents, photographs, and works of art. When reference is made to a library, the same will apply to an archive, which is generally defined as a collection of paper documents, but also as a collection of film, photographs, and other objects. A collection of documents produced during a career--such as the archive produced by a newspaper editor, photographer, or contemporary novelist--also constitutes an archive, although it was not collected systematically, but rather accrued as a reflection of the creator's enterprise. 

2. New York Times, August 19, 1993.