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Gifts to the Nation’s Library

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(The following is a story featured in the July/August 2015 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM. You can read the issue in its entirety here.)

This 1964 “Instrument of Gift” authorizes the Library’s acquisition of the papers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Acquisitions and Bibliographic Access Directorate.

The Library of Congress acquires materials through many different streams. Copyright deposits, purchase of U.S. collections and exchange agreements with partners around the world, among other methods, substantially underpin the Library’s acquisitions.

One lesser-known method through which the Library acquires many of its special collections is through gifts. The Library’s acquisition of gifts is administered by the gift coordinator in the U.S./Anglo Division in consultation with Library curators and recommending officers. Not all gifts are accepted for inclusion in the Library’s collections. From single items to large collections, offers of gifts are evaluated for possible acquisition in accordance with the Library’s collection development policies.

The Library receives offers of materials in various formats such as manuscripts, films, photographs and other special collections. Library curators also actively solicit gifts from individuals and collectors in their respective fields. About 70 curators, recommending officers, and other Library officials are authorized to negotiate for gifts. For example, Verna Curtis of the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division offered the following justification for acquiring a gift of photographs by Vincent Cianni:

“Rollerbladers” in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is part of photographer Vincent Cianni’s “We Skate
Hardcore” series, 1995. Prints and Photographs Division.

“This gift adds to the Library’s representation of the contemporary photographic practice of shooting in black-and-white and printing gelatin silver prints (now in decline) and serves as documentation of an urban culture in America. The photographs enrich the Library’s photography holdings by offering striking traditional prints which chronicle a community of in-line skaters Cianni met and followed in the Williamsburg, Brooklyn, neighborhood … during the 1990s.” The collection of 33 photographs recently came to the Library.

Once recommenders determine that a proposed gift meets the Library’s collection policies, they notify Gift Coordinator Peter L. Stark, who is authorized to obtain, pay for and arrange transportation for special collections that come to the Library of Congress. For many of the gifts, Stark works closely with the Library’s Office of the General Counsel, the recommenders and the donors to ensure that the agreements are clear and understood by all involved. Some gift acquisitions are more complicated than others.

The gift coordinator also arranges for the shipping of about 125 donations via Federal Express each year for the American Folklife Center, the Prints and Photographs Division and Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, to name a few.

Shipping large collections to the Library can create unusual challenges. Comprising more than 900 boxes, the papers of astronomer Carl Sagan were stored in a facility in Ithaca, New York, that was built into the side of a steep slope equipped with only a narrow stairway up to street level. The Sagan Collection was carried out of the facility one box at a time.

Marvin Hamlisch’s original manuscript for the song “Nobody Does It Better” is one of the many treasured items in the composer’s donated collection. Music Division.

Collections housed in various locations can also be complicated. A case in point is the recently acquired collection of composer Marvin Hamlisch.

“The collection was divided between the two coasts,” said Mark Eden Horowitz, a senior music specialist who works closely with the gift coordinator to recommend and acquire American musical theater collections for the Library. “Access to one location was hard to schedule and the collection includes rare and fragile items that required fine-arts shippers to pack. Through it all, the U.S./Anglo Division staff did the heavy lifting–both figuratively and literally.”

Often, a donor will arrange to send an initial shipment of material to the Library shortly after signing a gift agreement and then continue adding to the collection over a period of years. For example, the Manuscript Division recently received a five-box addition to the papers of conservative leader and National Review publisher William A. Rusher, whose original gift to the Library was made in 1989.

The exceedingly rare 1784 Abel Buell Map of the United States, now on display at the Library, was transported to the Library from New York City by special courier.

The U.S./Anglo Division acquires from 35 to 45 major special-format, non-book gifts per year, which each require a formal gift agreement signed by the donors and the Librarian of Congress. Stark writes approximately 250 letters per year acknowledging non-book gifts. The letters range from thanking donors for major collections to acknowledging the receipt of single gift items that “walk in” to collection divisions.

“From a single book to a large private collection, donations to the Library of Congress benefit the nation,” said Acquisitions and Bibliographic Access Director Beacher Wiggins.

Gift coordinator Peter Stark and Beth Davis-Brown, a section head in the Acquisitions and Bibliographic Access Directorate, contributed to this article.


  1. Thank you for the interesting look at the gifts that come into the Library of Congress. What is prompting this comment is actually the title of the blog. This may seem really picky, and I don’t mean to be, but I’m surprised you are calling the Library of Congress “the Nation’s Library”. In the not distant past, significant service and policy changes were predicated on the distinct assertion that the institution is the LIBRARY OF CONGRESS – not the national library. It would be good to have some consistency of message so as not to foster false expectations. On the other hand, if there is a new mission, etc. at LC, that’s great!

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