The Ethics of Deaccession

| February 28, 2011

Not too long ago, the New York Times ran a story called “Deaccession Can Be Big Issue Even in Small Towns.” It discusses the increasingly frequent occurrence that libraries must consider selling historical artifacts in order to make ends meet.

Apart from the particular case of deaccessioning that the article focuses on, this practice raises a number of ethical and political questions. Are historical artifacts to be considered public goods? If so, what are the implications for how decisions about selling them ought to be made? Is it part of the purpose of a modern library to preserve historical items, and who decides? Is there any obligation to sell the artifacts to buyers who will care for them and keep them publicly accessible?

Personally, it seems to me that citizens care more about these historical artifacts in theory than in practice. I doubt that most taxpayers would be willing actually to pay more taxes in order to keep libraries financially afloat without selling historical items when necessary, and on a day-to-day basis are probably better off with a library using its limited resources to maintain ordinary lending services.

However, I have a particularly unsentimental personality in general, and I do realize that many other people feel strongly about historical artifacts. The situation might be especially touchy if the artifacts in question are of particular importance to a minority and/or historically disadvantaged group.

What do you think – in general, should libraries consider the deaccession of historical artifacts to be a live option for balancing the books? If no, then what are their financial alternatives?