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YOU CAN’T GIVE ‘EM AWAY: THOUGHTS ON LIBRARIES PUBLIC AND PRIVATE

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2005/06 issue (Vol. 14, No. 4) of Dance Now.


As far as I can recall, the first dance book I owned was Tamara Karsavina’s memoir, Theatre Street. My favourite uncle gave it to me when I was a child—I don’t know why. Uncle Harry was cheerfully free from acquaintance with the arts, and Terpsichore had not yet claimed me for her own. Never mind. I read it—absorbed, enchanted, in thrall to the artist’s vivid, trenchant glimpses of her life’s journey: Childhood in St Petersburg in the late-nineteenth century. School days at the Maryinsky, where she was a few classes behind Pavlova and a short generation ahead of Balanchine, who admired her greatly. Development into a supreme lyric and dramatic dancer—and a great star—in what is now the Kirov Ballet. Ventures with Diaghilev, creating leading roles in ballets by Fokine and Massine. Tragically foreshortened partnership with Nijinsky. And, finally, emigration to England where for decades she contributed to the blossoming of British ballet. Though I’ve read dozens of dance biographies since, Karsavina’s Theatre Street remains, in my mind and heart, the indelible one. It converted me to dance before I had seen a single performance.


Now, of course, I own hundreds of dance books—far too many, some might say. Still, most of them have proved useful. Granted, several are mere curiosities or just tiny pointers to an ephemeral world that once turned, but their evidence is often unique. Many, having gone out of print, are growing increasingly rare and thus prohibitively expensive to acquire. Among them are dozens that I love inordinately. From time to time I fret about what will happen to them—all of them—when I’m gone. If you, reader, happen to be a bookish dance person, you might do some constructive worrying about your own horde.


(Music, art and theater buffs et al. should also take note.)


The most remarkable private collection of dance books I’ve touched with my own hands, scanned with my own eyes was that of the eminent Danish dance writer Svend Kragh-Jacobsen (1901-1984). Ensconced in his apartment in Frederiksberg, a lovely outlying part of Copenhagen, it formed part of a connoisseur’s assemblage that extended beyond books to iconography—exquisite prints of the nineteenth century’s Romantic ballerinas, original costume designs—and included a cache of resonant memorabilia. The beautifully appointed domain of a bachelor at home in the arts, the apartment was a perfect museum in miniature. Ideally, after Svend Kragh’s death, a velvet rope would have been extended across the doorway, a curator installed, and a lavish endowment found to keep the place open to dance-loving bibliophiles, who would have found here an even more generous stock on the subject than was available in Denmark’s Royal Library.


This being the real world, however, a more realistic destiny prevailed: The apartment was closed and the collection auctioned off, dispersed here and there to a bevy of highest bidders. The books deemed unworthy of such attention eventually wound up on the performing arts table at a huge something-for-everyone church book sale, where they went for a song. Stumbling across these (I can never resist a sign that says ‘Book Sale’), I bought as many as I could carry away, including a few I didn’t even need or want—because I felt so sorry for them.


My own treasures are far more modest than Svend Kragh’s. My collection of English-language dance books, few more than 100 years old, isn’t unique. Still, it will deserve a home when I’m no longer around to provide one. Clearly, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’ Dance Division, the grandest dance library in the United States, doesn’t need to inherit it. No doubt it already harbours several copies of almost every volume on my shelves. If your collection falls into this category, you’d do well to start thinking about—and investigating—alternatives.


When you’re looking for a recipient, it may be helpful to know what I’ve learned in my own search for my books’ next home: It is not sufficient simply to put a bequest in your will. Upon your death, the institution you have designated to inherit your books may very well not accept them.


You need to query the institution you have in mind, perhaps several of them, while you’re in relatively good shape. Try not to be dismayed by the responses. Your recipient of choice may greet your intended generosity with a ‘No, thank you’. No space. No demand for books on the subject. Or it may express a merely partial interest, asking for a list of your holdings that specifies title, author, publisher, year of publication, condition of book, and so on. (Making such a survey takes considerable time and patience—more than I, for one, possess.) If you manage to compile this list (at which point you may well be tempted to photograph the cover of each book digitally, readying it for sale on eBay), the institution you’ve approached will then be in a position to indicate provisional interest or lack of it in your proffered donation. If the former, you should understand that, when the time comes, your designated institution will check off the items it wants and refuse the rest. Who—once you’re safely ensconced in Paradise, seeing all your favourite ballets, coached by their own choreographers and performed by ideal casts—is going to find a shelter for ‘the rest’? Trust me, no one. What’s even worse, as a well-meaning librarian felt obliged to point out to me, once the moment of transfer arrives, the institution with which you negotiated to your satisfaction may well change its mind about its earlier indications of willingness to give your orphans a home.


What you’re looking for, really, is a recipient likely to welcome the whole kit and caboodle, being seriously (preferably desperately) undersupplied in the very material you have to offer. Such places do exist, needy and potentially grateful. It’s a matter of identifying them. Don’t, however, expect your collection, once received, to be kept intact—with your name on it, so to speak. These days, that’s just asking too much. Your books will mingle democratically with everyone else’s books. Inscribe your name on each flyleaf, if you like, before your—and the books’—departure.


I’ve made an arrangement for my own horde of English-language dance books that satisfies me immensely. Because of the peculiar nature of my career, I’ve formed close ties with the Danish ballet world. After falling in love, young, with Balanchine and then Ashton, I had an autumnal affair with an older man, exactly a century older than Ashton and Balanchine, Denmark’s August Bournonville.


My books have been accepted in advance, with thanks, by the Library of the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. This small, specialised, and utterly invaluable institution shelters, among countless fascinating and valuable items, Valborg Borchsenius’s handwritten notes on the Harald Lander productions that yanked Bournonville’s ballets into modern times. (To this day, when a new staging of Bournonville is in work, the corresponding Borchsenius manuscript will be whisked across the street to a rehearsal room in the Theatre and scrutinised as the Word handed down in a steady path. Most Danes speak and read English, so the texts of the books I’m offering will be readily accessible to the library’s clientele of artists and scholars. Granted, I’m aware of the fact that this marvellous library—with its warm welcome, its dedicated librarians, and its mesmerizing offerings—may not outlast me. Times and insensitivity being what they are, it has for some years been under threat of being merged into the larger Royal Library. One does well to remember that nothing is forever.


Needless to say, the Danes have no need for my Danish-language dance books, though many of them are now hard to find on the market. I thought that they’d make a splendid acquisition for an American college or university with a strong dance department, but they were turned down unceremoniously by my alma mater, Barnard College, where I had also taught a seminar in writing dance criticism for some years. The Harvard Theatre Collection, which is the American custodian for my oral history project on the Danish ballet, wanted the list from which it could pick and choose. I actually made this list, with the help of a Danish friend, but was then put off by the HTC’s haughty attitude—an implied assumption that I was unlikely to offer much it didn’t already possess. So my books are slated to go to the New York Public Library’s Dance Division, whose curator, Madeleine Nichols, assures me they will be welcome. Perhaps they will even be fêted, being rare birds on these shores.


I had been reluctant to offer them there first because I had reservations about certain policies of that library, among them putting up for sale to the public, in annual bazaars, duplicate or otherwise unwanted material it had received as donations. That method of redistribution—much like the flea market system, albeit with a more highbrow clientele—no longer obtains, I was assured recently. Nicholson Baker’s essays, urging against the widespread de-acquisition practiced in recent years by many American libraries because of a space crunch, caused the NYPL board of directors to reconsider its policy.


A new, scrupulously articulated method of acquisition and release has been put in place. The document outlining the library’s position, ‘The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations: Policy on Gifts of Materials to The Research Libraries’, is worth perusing, not just for information as to how one’s proposed donation will be treated, but also for its combination of graceful gratitude for generosity and lawyerly firmness as to disposition. It tells us, in short, that proffered gifts will be carefully screened for their usefulness to the library before they’re accepted, and that, once material is accepted, the library controls absolutely what happens to it. This means that a given book may be placed anywhere in the system, exchanged with a sister institution, sold off, or ‘otherwise disposed of’. The comfort to the giver as he relinquishes control over his cherished possessions lies in knowing the score and knowing that the library will do nothing haphazardly; a formal chain of approvals now exists to address both the welcoming and the letting go.


I’ve been talking here about institutions’ inheriting your books, rather than individuals. Yes, if you happen to be close to a young dancer or dance aficionado, there’s a fine romance in making her or him the legatee of your collection. Keep in mind though, that a significant private collection probably deserves to be taken over by an institution, which is better equipped to care for books (they get old and frail, just like their owners) and able to make them available to a wider readership.


Of course, you can take a cavalier attitude and disclaim responsibility for the future of books whose caretaker you’ve been during your lifetime. Related to this stance is the appealing Zen attitude of renouncing possessions and abandoning illusions of directing life’s course. If that’s your style, you may assume without fretting that your books will be speedily delivered by some harassed survivor into the maw of some charity shop, there to embark upon the next stage of their existence when they are serendipitously discovered by a dance fan who will cherish them. That’s leaving a helluva lot to chance. Is it mere wistful thinking to hope that my cherished books may enjoy an ongoing life in good company?


My Uncle Harry was over 90 when he died, leaving nary a book behind him. It was he, by the way, who gave me my first Jane Austen, years before I could make sense out of a single one of its dazzling sentences, though eventually I would reread her novels every year. Fate has the oddest messengers.


© 2005 Tobi Tobias

an ArtsJournal blog