US: Library Deaccessioning

The Wilmington Library plans to pay for a new roof, heating and air conditioning system and other repairs for its Rodney Square building by selling 14 illustrations N.C. Wyeth painted for the 1920 publication of “Robinson Crusoe.”

There is now a discussion in the EXLIBRIS list on this topic. Here is my opinion:

All deaccessioning is bad if there is a loss of cultural property.

(i) Cultural property (or heritage) is a property of the public. It’s
the tangible counterpart of the PUBLIC DOMAIN.

(ii) All deaccessioning is bad if the work in question is part of an
ensemble (provenance) which deserves protection as a whole.

(iii) All deaccessioning is bad if there is any doubt that the donor
of the item wouldn’t agree. He has in most cases given the work in a
“safe harbour” not to a “chamber of assets” which can be made to money
in a financial crisis. If the work wasn’t donated the opinion of
important donors should be heard. Selling a work can have collateral
damages for the institution-donor-relation.

(iv) All deaccessioning is bad if it is made in a non-transparent
clandestine way. There must be a public discussion in which all voices
should be heard.

(v) Each cultural institution is a part of a boader network of
heritage preserving institutions.

(vi) If a work is selled at auction there is a high risk that unique
pieces will disappear in private collections not available to the

(vii) If a rare non-unique work is selled at auction there is a risk
that scholars have to make long travels to find another copy.

(viii) Deaccessioning is bad if pseudo-duplicates are selled which are
under some aspects unique (provenance, written marginalia, etc.).

(ix) Deaccessioning is bad if there is an at least minor loss of trust
in the persuasion that the institution takes serious the duty to
preserve heritage for the posterity. The “collection’s scope” cannot
be changed arbitrarily.

This is an opinion of an European point of view.

Autor: Klaus Graf

Historiker und Archivar, Blogger

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