The David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at duke.  Bryan Pollard /shutterstock

The David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at duke. Bryan Pollard/shutterstock

Libraries and other collecting institutions often acquire private collections to deepen their holdings. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship: libraries benefit from collectors’ hard work while donors can find safe, lasting homes for their collections.

But for the institutions involved, the process of acquiring a collection takes time and consideration. They must consider what a collection adds to their institution while donors must contemplate their own values and vision. Careful cultivation is needed to develop the relationship between institution and collector.

Lisa Unger Baskin’s work with Duke University is a great example. Baskin’s collection of 11,000+ books, ephemera, and objects on women’s work came to Duke University Libraries as part-sale and part-donation in 2015 as a result of a successful cultivation process.  

A Collection in Need of a Home

A collector, book dealer, and activist, Lisa Unger Baskin has been collecting items related to women’s work for over 45 years. The impulse grew out of her active involvement in headline social movements. “My response to the women’s movement, alongside my activism, was to collect and document the history that was hidden, not taught, and little written about,” she explains in her collector’s statement

Baskin collected a wide variety of objects related to women’s work, from manuscripts, letters, photographs, trade cards and even books going back to the 14th century. She also acquired unique items, notably Virginia Woolf’s writing desk and Charlotte Bronte’s needlepoint. 

But one summer, three catastrophic events in Western Massachusetts—a tornado, a hurricane, and a freak snowstorm—led Baskin to decide that the collection, housed in her wooden farmhouse, needed a new, safer home. She sent out a Request for Proposals (RFP) to likely institutions, many of whom were familiar with the collection. In the end, Duke University emerged as the collection’s new home. Here’s how. 

Cultivating the Collector, Acquiring the Collection

When Duke first learned of Baskin’s collection, the decision was made to pursue it. “We always ask why Duke might be the right place for a particular collection,” said Naomi L. Nelson, Associate University Librarian and Director of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Baskin’s collection aligned with Duke’s collecting interests in women’s history, advertising and marketing, medicine, and much more. Her materials complemented the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture, a collection housed at the Rubenstein Library with a focus on modern history and the South. According to Nelson, Duke’s interest in the Baskin collection also stemmed from its potential usefulness to faculty members.

Following Duke’s decision, the next step was to cultivate Baskin’s interest. Will Hansen, who worked with Baskin at Duke and is now at the Newberry Library, began by inviting Baskin to see Duke’s operations. “She asked a lot of questions and we showed her the whole scope of the operations at the Special Collection,” he said. Hansen and team also showed her how the items would be used in classroom settings.

Duke’s careful process of cultivation was successful after a year and a half. For Baskin, Duke’s success was “completely unexpected.” Of all the institutions in the running, Duke best understood Baskin’s needs for the collection. There were several, but “the single most important was that the collection had to be used,” she said.

Since the acquisition, Duke has worked to catalog nearly 7,000 of approximately 11,000 items in the collection. “There’s been enough of a critical mass that researchers are starting to come in and build on Lisa’s own research,” Nelson said. Faculty are also updating their classes to incorporate women’s contributions into curriculum.

Drawing on this experience, Hansen and Nelson both emphasize that it was essential to understand the collector’s needs and interests. Hansen points out that institutions need to be prepared with information the donor may want. And Nelson explains that institutional support was critical for a collection of this size.

When asked about this complex acquisition—part sale, part donation—Nelson said: “It gives us more options in how we structure an acquisition.” More and more, institutions are encountering more complex giving vehicles, such as direct monetary gifts paired with property. These complex gifts allow institutions to acquire materials as well as provide donors with tax write-offs for the sale. 

Symbolism can be an important factor as recipients think about the life of the collection at their institution. Sometimes collectors will give a portion of the collection as a donation for symbolic reasons, Nelson said. It was important that the collection retain Lisa Baskin’s name because Duke wanted to “make sure that her role as collector is visible,” Nelson continued. After all, the collection reflects decades of hard work to uncover the hidden work of women.

The Relationship Continues

Baskin’s interaction with the collection continues. She has helped to curate it, worked on its catalog, and facilitated its further expansion. While Baskin still collects for herself, she checks the library’s holdings to ensure it does not already own a given item.

Baskin also assists with purchases for the library. “If there is something that I see that fits in collection at Duke, and I don’t have the funds to acquire it, we will acquire something together,” Baskin explains.

Continued engagement benefits both institution and collector. “Institutions want donors who are active and interested to continue being involved,” Hansen said. Sometimes, on top of donating their collections outright, collectors will donate money to aid in the timely and expensive process of cataloging. To continue the relationship post-acquisition, Hansen suggests institutions consider giving updates, such as when objects from the collection go into exhibitions or are used in class presentations.

The story of Baskin’s donation to Duke University is just one example of the mutually beneficial relationships that can form when donor cultivation goes right. 

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