Are Old, Rare Things Intrinsically Valuable?

Unarguably, there are rare old things that are simultaneously invaluable and worth millions of dollars. The Gutenberg bibles and Shakespeare first folios spring readily to mind as examples. However,  these are the “easy” cases — given half the chance or financial resources, just about anybody would jump at the opportunity to acquire them — but what about other less clear-cut, more marginal items?

I find myself asking this after a visit I had to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. This grand institution is the home of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which was the reason I visited it. However, while I was there, I saw that the Essences, the ancient group of Jewish sectarians who produced the culturally and intellectually monumental scrolls, also had a more earthly, bodily existence. Naturally enough! But what drove home the point is the fact that the museum had exhibited a spoon-like item. Small, inconspicuous, and only by reading its description does one realize that it is 1st century re-usable toilet paper. It makes me wonder: is it true that if something is old enough and rare enough (and in this case happened to clean famous-enough anuses), it’s then an invaluable artifact, worthwhile of being curated, preserved, and displayed?

I don’t know, but let’s steer this discussion away from our nether regions and towards . . . say, library collection management. Putting the natural constraints of budgets aside (a biggie to put aside, no doubt), do curators have to constantly guard themselves against the impulse to acquire materials simply because they are old? Because if they do not end up in the care of big institutional libraries, they’re likely to be lost forever?

There is a school of library collection, and more generally life philosophy, for whom the risk of irreversibly losing a material object necessarily justifies its retention. Proponents of this camp posit that any strand in the vast tapestry that is the entirety of the human experience is valuable. It is valuable because it is part of our cultural heritage; no price tag can be attached to it. Once a strand in this tapestry is lost, it is irreplaceable. This loss must be guarded against at whatever cost, and regardless of any practical use we may have for the object when it is available.

I would venture that no actual librarian has the luxury to fully subscribe to this school of thought. When the price of acquiring a collection is not only the dollar amount sunk into buying, processing, and housing it, but also the opportunity cost of letting something else go, a librarian must justify his or her purchase decision not only by the materials’ age and rarity, but also its content and ultimately how likely it is to be used. What is a lowest probability that something may be utilized by a researcher and yet still justify its costs probably varies from institution to institution. I simply wonder how explicit and transparent is the assigned value to this probability.

Lastly, (and although this is probably beyond the purview of any librarian) can utilization be the unquestionable final arbiter? As the humanities, the main users for primary, old, and rare materials, undergo its own crisis and find itself needing to defend its social value, can library curators continue to rely on the use and eventual output of that use by humanities researchers to justify their own efforts?

(Aside: Stanford currently has an exhibit titled Monuments of Printing: From Gutenberg through the Renaissance going on in its Green Library. The exhibit includes a leaf from the Gutenberg bible. May be fun to check out!)

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