New Books: Acquisitions and Collection Development
This post is provided by Anne Marie Creighton, who joins us this year as a research fellow in the Dumbarton Oaks Library.
This is a time for new arrivals at Dumbarton Oaks, since twenty-something new residential fellows arrived last week. Because of this, I’ve been thinking about a different kind of arrivals: books at the library. In college, I never knew how the books I read came into a library’s possession in the first place. This week, therefore, I did some research around DO to find out how we do it. My sources were Bridget Gazzo and Deb Brown, our area studies librarians in Pre-Columbian and Byzantine Studies, and Sarah Mackowski, the Acquisitions & InterLibrary Loan Assistant. This post will cover works that enter the regular library collections and rare books.
To make sure that our collections are up to date, we’re always acquiring new books. (“New” not meaning newly published, but new to us. We buy both recently published books and ones that came out some time ago.) The librarians do a thorough job trying to ensure both depth and breadth. Recently, for example, Deb ordered some books to make sure our collections represented scholarship on the central Asian nomads who interacted with the Byzantine empire. When Deb finds such books, she puts in a request, and it becomes the province of the acquisitions staff. These librarians handle both the majority of books that the Dumbarton Oaks Library receives through its regular processes, as well as special requests on nomads or whatever else.
Sarah Mackowski handles many of Dumbarton Oaks’ book orders. Once she has double-checked whether we already have a book, she places an order with the appropriate book-seller. (Sarah says one critical skill that she has developed for handling Byzantine books at Dumbarton Oaks is the ability to transliterate a variety of Eastern European languages.) After the book has come in the mail, the acquisitions librarians “arrive” it, which is the library software’s term for receiving it. They check to see if its quality is good—we don’t want books that are damaged or written in. Deb, Bridget, and/or Sheila Klos, the Director of the Library, check the book’s relevance to DO—if we bought it for its section on Japanese gardens, but it turns out that section is two pages long, we might send it back. Then the book moves to the staff who catalogue it. My favorite/least favorite detail from this whole process was the very literal color scheme for processing books. All newly arrived books get an “arrival slip,” which is color-coded with a highlighter. Byzantine Studies is blue; Garden and Landscape Studies is green; Pre-Columbian Studies is pink. And orange is for anything “other.”
Acquiring rare books, on the other hand, is often a long-term project, because years may pass before a copy of a certain title comes on the market. Each rare book, therefore, has its own story. One recent acquisition in Pre-Columbian Studies was the Relación histórica del viage a la América meridional by Jorge Juan and Antonio de Ulloa, an account from the most significant scientific expedition to colonial Spanish America. This was high on our list of desiderata for many years for its geographical and archaeological text and engravings. Bridget put the word out with her rare book dealers that we were interested in acquiring the title. After several months’ time, one of them located a copy.. Whether to buy that copy was a difficult decision, however, because it was both very expensive and missing a number of plates.
Luckily, we were saved from this decision due to a pair of happy coincidences. Almost twenty-fiveyears ago, Bridget went to a conference for Latin American Studies librarians that was held at the University of Virginia (SALALM), where she met a family of rare book dealers: a husband, wife, and son. I do not think anything came of it at the time, but a few years ago, the son took over the family business. In this digital world, he emailed a catalog to every person who had ever been on his parents’ snail mail list to receive catalogs including, as Bridget put it, “those from days of yore.” He happened, at that point, to have a copy of the Relación that was both finer and less costly than the other one we were considering. Our copy is currently up at Harvard being digitized; here’s a preview!