Thursday, May 19, 2011

That pesky issue of deaccessioning

I see I have not mentioned the word deaccessioning in this blog for at least 18 months, but the issues that I wrote about then just keep on coming up.

The latest salvo comes from students of the University of Sydney’s Fisher Library upset by Senior Librarian John Shipp’s plan to deaccession 500,000 books and periodicals

John is a thoroughly decent man who does not deserve the vitriol being thrown at him, but that is what the process of deaccessioning seems to generate whenever it is mentioned.

The reality behind this situation is spelt out in a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald on May 14th 2011, where a former staffer at the Library writes that “This is a decision that has been avoided by librarians at the University of Sydney for the past 40 years. Libraries cannot be allowed to grow indefinitely”. The writer then cites how a previous librarian accepted all the discards from American libraries in a large shipment that is still cluttering up the stacks.

Meanwhile in the UK as reported in the latest Museums Journal, Nick Merriman (see previous blogs for his interest in this area) continues to champion the deaccessioning of collections for financial purposes in certain circumstances: “The Museums Association continues to believe that ethically sound, financially motivated disposal has a role to play in the development of collections”.

What the words ‘ethically sound’ refers to is the MA’s Code of Ethics which states that disposal for financial gain is unethical where an artwork or item is part of the collecting area of the collecting institution. Thus for instance Bolton Council has withdrawn a painting it was due to deaccession and auction by a local artist, Alfred Heaton Cooper, because it did not fall outside their stated core collecting areas, despite the fact it did not depict Bolton.

The core issue here is that deaccessioning is and must remain a part of good collecting policy. The temptation to sell valuable items to keep the show on the road in times of financial stringency is strong, but that is clearly bad policy. Where however items are clearly beyond the collecting areas of the institution and are most unlikely to be publicly displayed, and where the funds that they might realise can help other parts of the organisation, e.g. with a new storage facility, then it makes good sense.

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