The Executive Director of Salisbury House, a historic house in Des Moines, Iowa, suddenly resigned her post a short time ago. This story would not have been of interest to a rare book related site except for the fact that Salisbury House had a large library, and the Executive Director had come under fire for selling its valuable book collection to pay debts and expenses. There may have been other factors involved, and Director Kit Curran has stirred up controversy in the past with attempts to reduce expenses. However, while this particular story may not be of great significance outside of Des Moines, it is reflective of conditions plaguing many libraries and related institutions today.
We first wrote about Salisbury House's issues in October 2019. At that time, it had been revealed that Salisbury House was in the process of selling its valuable books to nearby Grinnell College, whose financial status is much stronger. Salisbury House was built in the 1920s by cosmetics magnates Carl and Edith Weeks, local residents. It is a mansion, containing 42 rooms, including a 3,000-book library. Later, the Weeks sold the house to the Iowa State Education Association, and 45 years after that, they sold it to the Salisbury House Foundation. They conducted extensive renovations and opened it to the public. However, the number of visitors has dwindled in recent years, resulting in expenses that outstripped admission fees and contributions.
Ms. Curran was hired to administer the estate in 2015 and came to the conclusion that it was not a viable financial model as structured. This led to her eliminating several of the limited number of positions at the foundation. Not everyone agreed with the wisdom of this move, including some former employees. Whether this was the right move is beyond our knowledge, but even if necessary, laying people off is not the road to popularity.
Then, last year, she made another decision that upset some people. She decided to sell the contents of the library to nearby Grinnell College. Among those 3,000 books were some particularly notable pieces, a Gutenberg leaf, Shakespeare Second Folio, Kelmscott Chaucer, James Joyce's galley proofs for Tales of Shem and Shaun (later titled Finnegan's Wake), signed documents by French King Louis XVI, the Marquis de Lafayette, John Hancock, Abraham Lincoln, U. S. Grant, Queen Elizabeth I, Cardinal Richelieu, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and others, correspondence between Carl Weeks and authors including Ernest Hemingway and D. H. Lawrence, and numerous items of incunabula.
Outcry came from sources such the Iowa Museum Association. While acknowledging “deaccessioning is an accepted and routine practice," it continued, "collections should never be seen as commodities to be sold in order to balance a budget.” Rather, the IMA says, deaccessions should only be used to fund preservation and acquisition of collections. In this case, the funds are to be used for paying debts incurred in maintaining the structure and personal services.
Ms. Curran argued that the institution had no other way to pay off the $2 million debt it had incurred prior to her arrival. With the debt paid off and other changes, she believed Salisbury House would become self-sustaining. While the sale price was not revealed, it was said to be more than enough to eliminate the debt. Meanwhile, the deal with Grinnell allowed them to accomplish a few other important goals. It kept the collection together, found it a good home near Des Moines, which will provide greater access to it. Because of its value and fragility, the collection had been off-limits to Salisbury House visitors. Additionally, Grinnell has promised to digitize the collection, so Salisbury House visitors and others will now have virtual access to it.
As to whether this decision was the primary reason for Ms. Curran's sudden departure or something else was, we do not know, but it was undoubtedly a factor. It is part of what made her a controversial figure. It was certainly a difficult choice, but it is one more institutions will face in the years ahead. Smaller libraries and institutions without an endowment or sufficient generous donors will struggle to pay the bills. Meanwhile, the internet and digital access has reduced traffic to these libraries. The future for old books is changing, and in time these issues will resolve themselves, but there will be much sorrow and pain along the way.