Reading Brooke Astor’s lengthy Times obit yesterday, I was struck by the attention paid to her patronage of the NYPL. Having far more knowledge of greatest generation socialites as a young someone from Texas really should, I was vaguely aware of her persona (she drank Campari and soda) and her legacy in New York. And I did recall that she celebrated her 100th birthday by having a party with 100 librarians. Her support of New York’s libraries (she was also a major patron of the Morgan Library) over the latter half of the 20th century had a major impact on those libraries’ life as city institutions, and more specifically, as vehicles for philanthropy. Ahead of her time, Astor was not only generous, but also personally involved with the institutions she supported.
Library development has in the ensuing decades become a beast all its own, but in a lot of ways I think we’re still talking this talk of the old guard rich as essential financial supporters and indicators of our real societal worth. How uncomfortable this makes me! But this outdated narrative is probably a sweetly arcane alternative to the post-globalization reality. The university library where I worked last had as major contributors to its capital campaign one of the most notorious white collar criminals in recent history, some major war profiteer corporations and the Saudi consulate- and this was met with chuckles.
I think archives and special collections are especially attune to the pressure to fundraise- they are often the flashiest parts of their parent institutions and a must-stop for donors. And it’s my impression that doing targeted stuff to appease and attract donors is necessary and expected. Some of it is survival, I understand, but it’s kind of a bummer. And it’s also no secret that any decent fundraiser or development director can command way more in salary than a librarian. So what does that say, when fiscal perpetuation takes equal or greater priority than library services? And recognizing the importance of private support for libraries, how can we do this better?