Mar / Apr 2014
What It Means to Be the "Library of Last Resort"
You might have seen the news about the nation’s first all-digital, book-free public library opening in San Antonio. More and more libraries across the nation are getting out of the book business, or at least substantially reducing their investment in paper and putting funds into e-readers, iPads, and computers.
So what is The Huntington doing digging a 40,000 square-foot hole in the ground, largely meant for books? It might not seem to make much sense in the age of digitization and instant access. But, in fact, this is what sets The Huntington apart: We are a research library, investing in the future of books and manuscripts, knowing full well that when libraries and institutions look for places to send their historic archives, they often look to The Huntington. We are the stewards of history. Los Angeles County Medical Association archives from the late 19th century? Here. Los Angeles law records? Here. Historic immigration files? Here. Air quality management records? Here. The archives of Los Angeles County Super visors John Anson Ford, Ed Edelman, and Kenneth Hahn? Here.
David Zeidberg, Avery Director of the Library, describes The Huntington as “the library of last resort.” That is, before institutions purge their files, they call us. In some cases we call them, because they might not realize that their materials have historic value. For scholars interested in learning about a particular moment in time and why history played out the way it did, these types of materials are extremely valuable; they can often prove a thesis, hone an argument, or shift a perspective entirely.
In addition to whole institutional collections that we've acquired (the Los Angeles Times archive for instance, as well as the photographic archives of Edison International and historical files from Northrop Grumman), we are, of course, continuing to collect items from single authors and other materials related to our areas of specialization. We recently received a collection of material by the great British satirist Evelyn Waugh. That gift, from Huntington trustee Loren Rothschild and his wife, Frances, adds to a rich trove of material from 20th-century writers that includes Jack London, Christopher Isherwood, Kingsley Amis, Charles Bukowski, and Hilary Mantel. The Library Collectors’ Council also added to our holdings recently by supporting several important acquisitions, including a large collection of early Santa Monica photographs.
We are a dynamic collecting institution. What this does, of course, is pave the way for future scholarship, providing the fodder for the researchers who will come tomorrow, next year, and decades from now, in search of answers about what went on, and perhaps, why.
You might ask, “Can’t you just google those topics and get the answers you’re looking for?” In fact, only a tiny fraction of The Huntington’s materials have been digitized, and that’s true for most research libraries, given the expense of doing so. Moreover, most scholars want physical access to the materials: They want to feel the paper, look at the writing in the margins, and pore over diary entries, ticket stubs, old photographs, and correspondence. It’s in interacting with the works themselves that scholars often find surprises, leading to new understanding and complete epiphanies.
We are grateful to people like the Rothschilds and the members of our Library Collectors' Council who help fan the flames of intellectual pursuit by providing The Huntington with new materials. Don’t get me wrong: Digital libraries and digital access are great. We simply happen to take our responsibility as a “library of last resort” quite seriously. And we are enormously grateful that others do, too.
Steve Koblik, President
Read more in the Mar / Apr 2014 Calendar