Retiring a Bookmark Collection
by Laine Farley
There are many reasons why someone may consider retiring a bookmark collection, even one that has been lovingly developed over a long period of time. As people change their circumstances, it may no longer be possible to sustain and store a collection, or perhaps the urge to collect simply wanes over time. Another common reason is that the collection is inherited from a relative and the person who becomes responsible for it does not wish to continue the collection. Here are some initial considerations for what to do with a collection. We would like to hear your thoughts and experiences as well, and eventually we will turn this into an article.
First, the decision to sell or donate it must be addressed. This course is not an all or nothing one, however. It may be reasonable to keep some parts of the collection, sell especially valuable or noteworthy items, and donate the rest. Each collection is unique as are owners’ motivations.
If you want to sell it:
- Whole collection: depending on the size, you might want to offer it to an auction site if it is large and significant enough to warrant their attention. Auction houses that deal in paper ephemera might be good candidates. Ephemera dealers are another possible source.
- Batches: Sometimes collections are broken up and sold in batches on sites like eBay or Etsy. These batches can be grouped thematically (e.g., similar material, subject matter, age). There are agents or “valets” who will handle sales for you and they take a percentage of the sales price. Again, looking for someone who knows or deals in ephemera would be a starting point.
- Individual bookmarks: If you have pieces that are especially rare or valuable, it could be worth it to offer them separately. Similarly, an agent could handle it but you might have a better sense of relative value or what you would consider the minimum acceptable price which should be made clear to an agent.
- Whatever method you choose, it is probably a good idea to have some kind of intermediary rather than trying to sell it directly. This arrangement protects both you and the buyer. The International Friends of Bookmarks (IFOB) members are an audience that would probably like to know about the collection, but IFOB is not really set up to be a site for selling.
If you want to donate it:
Some libraries specialize in collecting ephemera, and there are even a few that have bookmark collections such as the University of Iowa. If your collection has many items from a particular area (businesses, bookstores, museums, etc.), it may be possible that a local library or historical museum would be interested. People often assume that the largest libraries like New York Public or even Library of Congress (or national libraries in other countries) are the best choices, but they get so many donations that they may not be. It could be better to find a library with an interest in the type of collection, a local interest, or some other tie. If it is important to you that your collection be exhibited, a smaller library or museum is more likely to do so.
In preparing to contact institutions who might take the collection, consider the following steps:
1. How much: Count the collection or at least have an estimated number of items. The next best approach is to have a description of the extent, e.g., the number of boxes, binders or whatever they are stored in.
2. Context: Make a list of any publications or descriptions or even your own notes about the collection. Have you ever exhibited it, have articles been written about it by you or others, have you ever made a presentation about it? Anything that showcases the collection, no matter how insignificant it may seem, will be of interest to the institution.
3. About the collector: Compile a biography of the collector. Libraries and museums want to provide context for the collection and provenance or history of its development. Anything you can say about how you started the collection, how you went about adding to it, any special interests, would be good additions. If you write this up, also consider sending it to IFOB since we like to publish short articles about collectors and their collections.
4. Photos: provide a set of any images you have on a storage device (e.g., USB drive, CD, etc.) that you can give to the institution. You might also take a few photos of groups or types as another way to give a sense of the size and scope. If you have posted photos to any sort of social media site, provide access to that if possible.
5. References: Other collectors could probably look at photos or other materials and be able to say more about the quality of the collection in a letter of reference. If you have ever talked about or exhibited the collection, whoever sponsored it would be a good reference.
6. Agreement: Libraries and museums will have their own agreements for accepting donations, but you can think about the terms you want as well. Is there anything related to the collections for which you want to claim copyright (e.g., articles, images)? Do you want to impose any conditions on use of the collection in publications by others? Do you want to require that it be exhibited in a certain way or frequency? What kind of credit or recognition do you wish to receive? To what extent are you willing to negotiate any of these requests if they are not part of the standard agreement?
Libraries and museums will be more willing to consider collections that complement those they already have, but also if the collections are organized, stored in reasonably good condition, and documented. The cost to them is in the processing. Usually they will create a "finding aid" which is a high level description of the collection and the collector. Here is an example for the collection of Don Baldwin at the University of Iowa. For important collections, they will go into more detail and describe the contents of each container. Here is an example of the collection of Frank X. Roberts whose collection includes his poetry and other writings, plus some materials from his wife. They must also put the collection into acid free boxes, sleeves, or binders, another expense. It's not required but they very much appreciate donations to cover at least some of these costs.
Finally, there is the issue of transporting the collection, whether you choose to sell or donate it. Of course, the best option is to transport it in person to ensure that it reaches its destination without damage. If this method is not practical, at a minimum the transport should be tracked through postal or delivery services, and possibly insured. The packaging will depend on the nature of the collection, and it may be advisable to break it up into several packages. There are many other considerations for transporting it that will be specific to the situation.
Whatever you choose to do with your collection, the most important thing is meeting your own goals for how you would like to retire the collection or its components. Whether you wish to preserve it as a collection to be studied and exhibited, make it available to other collectors, benefit from the sale, or simply get rid of it in the most expeditious way possible, there is no single or “right” way to bring your collection to a close.
Please do share your experiences and thoughts about this stage of collecting.