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Wednesday, November 9,2011

Turning old books into new revenue

Library of Michigan wraps up its sale of 75,000 out-of-circulation volumes

by Bill Castanier

 


 


You won’t hear the bang of an auctioneer’s gavel, but
when bidding closes online this week for the final lots of books being
auctioned off at the Library of Michigan it will signal an end of an
era.


Since midsummer, the Library of Michigan has been selling
more than 75,000 books that were no longer deemed essential for library
collections at the state’s online auction site (mibid.bidcorp.com). The
books were part of what was once the Dewey Collection; some of the
books date back to the late 19th century.


Early in its history the Library of Michigan collected
books within broad categories of topics and circulated them in wooden
traveling boxes across the state, especially in areas where there were
no libraries. The books in the collection were categorized under the
Dewey Decimal System, named for Melvil Dewey, who created the
classifications in 1876. The system sorted books by 10 classes, then 10
divisions and finally 10 sections ranging from religion to travel — you
name it. 


In 1987 when the Library of Michigan converted to the
Library of Congress system, the original Dewey books were never rolled
into the new system. In essence, they became a shrine to the Dewey
system and were seldom touched.


Donald Todaro, who has overseen the auction as assistant
director of the state library, said in the last several decades the
collection saw little or no use, even though the books occupied nearly
half of the fourth floor of the Library of Michigan.


When former Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s administration was
looking for ways to save money it determined the library was an easy
target. Ultimately, the library was hit with more than $1 million in
cuts. It was able to maintain its Michigan and Genealogy collections
while pretty much everything else was determined to be expendable,
including staff: The library once had more than 130 employees, but that
dropped to 32. 


Since late summer the library has sold
off books ranging from “Who Put the Bomb in Father Murphy’s Chowder” to
books on the nation’s rocket program. The books were auctioned off by
ascending Dewey classification numbers, and the final Dewey category,
the 900s, was put on the auction block last week, along with some
American, German and French literature. The 900 class covers geography,
history and biography.


But Todaro said the likelihood of
finding any rare books is, well, rare since the collection was first
culled for books pertaining to Michigan and then for books that could
be transferred into the Rare Book Collection. In addition, libraries
across the state were asked to take any books they wished for their
collections. As an example, Eastern Michigan University recently pulled
the architecture books for its historic preservation program.


Todaro said the auction has generated
approximately $15,000 in revenue and has turned out to be an easy way
to dispose of books since the winning bidder has to haul them away. He
said the money will be used to supplement the current budget.


According to Todaro, the majority of
books were sold to book dealers that had the ability to handle large
quantities. For example, the biography lot of nearly 9,000 books
offered in the most recent sale could take upwards of 350 boxes and a
pretty spacious truck to move.


Most of the books were sold in the range of 50 cents to $1 per book, according to Todaro.


Ray Walsh, proprietor of Curious Book
Shop in East Lansing, was the winning bidder of the Dewey category
Greek literature, consisting of approximately 476 books. I talked with
him as he began filling 20 boxes with books. 


He said he has seen some of the books sold at the earlier auctions turn up in local antique markets.


“The library should be commended for disposing of these
books under the circumstances,” Walsh said. “They’d run out of money
and out of space and hadn’t been buying for the collection for some
time.”


Walsh said the size of some of the lots precluded him from bidding on them: “We just couldn’t handle that many books.”


Walsh said libraries have always practiced deaccession
and still do, selling unwanted volumes at periodic book sales; the
Capital Area District Library sells at its Friends of the Library
bookstores, and Okemos Library has a book sale set for Nov.19 at the
Meridian Senior Center. 


That has not always been the case. Walsh remembers
watching a library toss books into a Dumpster 25 years ago. He said he
was able to rescue bound copies of periodicals from the 1800s.


Todaro said once the area on the fourth
floor is totally cleaned out that a decision will be made on what to do
with the space. Ideas range from creating a Michigan reading area to
giving more space to crowed sections in other parts of the library.


“As a librarian, it’s bittersweet seeing
the materials go,” Todaro said, but then again, there hasn’t been any
demand for these materials.


One book that has languished in the lot of the Africa
section is “The Journals of Major-General C.B. Gordon at Kartoum,”
published in 1885. Two copies of the title are advertised on Amazon at
$30 and $45. It’s likely another one will join them soon


Some of the more interesting collectibles might be the
watermarked books that survived a fire in what is now the Lewis Cass
Building. They were rebound in standard library bindings, and many
include a sticker that reads: "Damaged in State Office Building Fire
February, 1951."

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