Caroliniana Columns
Newsletter of the University South Caroliniana Society
Autumn 1999

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From Humans to Amazons: Acquiring Materials at the South Caroliniana Library

by Allen Stokes
Direct gifts of manuscript and printed materials have been and will continue to be the most important source for the acquisition of materials by special collections libraries like the South Caroliniana Library; however, with the continued emergence of internet technologies, the Library has also started to look to several on-line auction firms for sources of new acquisitions.

One of the purposes of establishing the University South Caroliniana Society in 1937 was to encourage the donation of printed materials and collections of papers documenting the history, literature, and culture of South Carolina and to offer appropriate recognition to donors. The Society also was established to create a private acquisition fund to enable the Library to purchase manuscripts, books, pamphlets, and maps.

When I began working at the Library in 1972, direct gifts and purchases though dealers in antiquarian materials remained the principal venues for acquisitions. Many of the dealers from whom the Library purchased materials represented firms that had been in business for decades: one of these was Mary Benjamin who was the successor to her father Walter, who began issuing catalogs in the 1880s. Other dealers and firms from whom the Library made many purchases were Murray Bromsen, Joseph Rubinfine, Kenneth Rendell, Cohasco, Bookworm & Silverfish, Cather & Brown, and The Americanist. Mary Benjamin worked with Dr. Robert L. Meriwether to enable the Library to complete one of its most significant purchases with the acquisition of several hundred letters of William Gilmore Simms in 1947.

Many of the manuscript offerings of dealers were letters of individuals who played important roles in the history of the colony and state of South Carolina. Hundreds of letters of the Pinckneys, Henry Laurens, John C. Calhoun, James Henry Hammond, Wade Hampton III, Francis Pickens, Paul Hamilton Hayne, William Gilmore Simms, and James L. Petigru were acquired from dealers in the first four decades of the South Caroliniana Library's existence. In most instances, these purchases were additions to existing collections that had come to the Library as direct gifts from individual donors.

Beginning in the 1980s and continuing into the present, though, dealers have offered far fewer letters of individuals who have been prominent in the state's history. It seems that such letters are almost like fish in the sea. Many experienced fishermen vow that tuna and other species are scarcer and harder to locate; similarly, the supply of manuscript materials that individual dealers acquire also appears to be dwindling. Faced with this dilemma, the Library has learned to diversify its acquisition strategies; we are now fishing in more than one stream.

Within the last several years, with the continued development of the World Wide Web, a new source of acquisitions has emerged: the on-line auction. The Library's two principal sources for on-line acquisitions are the Internet companies eBay (http://www.ebay.com) and Amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com, click on "Auctions"). The amount of South Carolina material offered on the Internet is remarkable, and surfing the net has become a daily activity for Library staff members. Postcards, stereoviews, and other images have been acquired as well as maps, books, and manuscripts.

The Library's initial foray into on-line auctioning was the purchase of a quarter plate daguerreotype of an unidentified family taken by Daniel L. Glen of Charleston. Important recent acquisitions include an 1885 Charleston business directory and an 1845 letter of overseer J. K. Munnerlyn to planter James R. Pringle. Another on-line acquisition, a collection of South Carolina maps from the 1880s through the 1940s, came to the Library as a gift from an individual who bid on the materials on-line.

While the lure of bidding on-line is compelling, and it is fascinating to monitor the progress of an auction, the Library will not turn its back on the traditional acquisition routes that have formed the backbone of this institution. Communication with human dealers is still an important component of acquiring materials; direct gifts of all forms of South Caroliniana have always been and will continue to be the most important source for the acquisition of materials by the South Caroliniana Library.


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