Retiring Your Library (Part One)

Landfill or Foreign Donation?

More than five decades have passed since I entered graduate school at Cornell University to pursue a doctorate in anthropology. During my long career as an academic and applied anthropologist, I accumulated thousands of books, and as a member of many sections of the American Anthropological Association and other professional societies, I received most of the important journals in the field, some of them from their inception. This passion for collecting anthropological writings is one I share with many senior anthropologists of my generation. We may not follow the example of Bronislaw Malinowski, whose tombstone gives his name, dates, and the inscription “anthropologist,” but for many of us our professional and personal lives are intimately intertwined. We remain anthropologists and active participants in the profession after retirement, continuing to publish and do research.

Books and journals boxed and ready for shipping to Peru. Roland Moore.

As we age, we face numerous daunting challenges and difficult decisions. At some point, downsizing may become a necessity; we may have to relinquish our office at work, we may have to move to a smaller home or into a retirement or assisted living facility. The question then becomes: What should I do with my library? Letting go may be painful or welcomed, felt as a major loss or a relief. But the decision is unlikely to be easy. Here are some options to consider.

Toss it

I have heard of cases where an entire collection was disposed of by simply hauling everything to the trash. This may be the path of least resistance (especially for heirs in a hurry to close out an estate). It is probably the easiest solution but to me this is the least desirable option. Relegating the books of ancestors, contemporaries, and accomplished students to a landfill would seem to be analogous to patricide, matricide, fratricide, and filicide. In this digital age and throw away culture, it is an understandable choice to make, but for those of us with a reverence for books, it is unthinkable.

Be creative

When an art historian colleague of mine died, the executor of his estate disposed of many of his books in an imaginative and thoughtful way. She displayed the books on tables at his memorial service, and attendees each received a bag with an invitation to look through the books and take as many as they wanted. This may work better for an art historian than an anthropologist given the value of the art books he had acquired.

I decided to donate my own library to the National University of the Altiplano (UNAP) in Puno, a provincial university in Peru in the region where I did most of my ethnographic work.

Sell the books

There are book buyers who will examine a collection and purchase all or part of the collection of used books. We are familiar with those who come around to our university offices at the end of each semester to buy books, but other buyers exist who may be interested in the collection. Of course, one can always attempt to sell the books online, at Amazon or elsewhere, but this is likely to be a long, drawn out process and not appropriate when time is a factor in the disposal decision. Selling online is time consuming, and selling to a book buyer probably means having to catalogue the collection. Many of our books are of little monetary value, but some might be valuable.  

Donating to an educational institution or library at home

For academic anthropologists, perhaps the most common decision is to donate one’s books to the university or college where one has taught or to a public library. Choosing this option means saving time: there is no need to catalog the donated books and journals, one simply boxes them up and delivers. The cost is also minimal since if the library is local it avoids shipping charges associated with donating further afield. However, institutions with good anthropology programs will likely possess most of the books in one’s collection, except for specialized areas. They will simply sell or otherwise dispose of duplicates. Community colleges or small private colleges may welcome such contributions to their holdings. Unfortunately, space limitations may make it difficult for many colleges and public libraries to accept sizeable donations.

Donating to a university abroad

In the end, I decided to donate my own library to the National University of the Altiplano (UNAP) in Puno, a provincial university in Peru in the region where I did most of my ethnographic work. Much of my career has been based on research and applied interventions in Quechua communities around Lake Titicaca. I am deeply indebted to the people in this region for their participation in my work and am a strong advocate for the importance of “giving back” to the communities where we work, communities that have been instrumental in our own successes and achievements as professionals. I considered it most appropriate that I contribute to the development of anthropology in the area, providing local colleagues and students with access to a much larger array of anthropological writings than those contained in the extremely small library in the Anthropology Department at UNAP. My colleagues at UNAP were extremely enthusiastic about acquiring my collection. They agreed to handle the processing once the shipment arrived at a Peruvian port and to cover some of the costs of getting the shipment out of customs and dispatched by truck from Lima to Puno, a distance of 818 miles. Further, they agreed that the library would be properly housed in a new building on campus and it would be accessible to anyone who wished to consult these books and journals.

Read part two, for tips about donating overseas and my own experience of sending my library to Peru.

Ralph Bolton is emeritus professor at Pomona College. For his scientific and applied contributions, he received the Franz Boas Award for Exemplary Service in Anthropology, the Sargent Shriver Award for Distinguished Humanitarian Service from the National Peace Corps Association, and the Libertador Simon Bolivar Medal from the National University of Trujillo, Peru.

Cite as: Bolton, Ralph. 2017. “Retiring Your Library (Part One).” Anthropology News website, July 25, 2017. doi: AN.514

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