Sunday, April 24, 2011

"A Breach of Trust" at the New York Public Library

The archives collection of the New York Public Library is a treasure trove containing the papers of President Thomas Jefferson and authors such as Herman Melville and Truman Capote. It has a reputation for adhering to the highest standards of archival practice. Now, however, a ugly dispute between the library and author Paul Brodeur, who used to write for The New Yorker, has become public knowledge thanks, in part, to this article in today's New York Times. Brodeur, "known for his zealous pursuit of asbestos manufacturers and corporate polluters as a journalist," donated approximately 320 boxes of his papers to NYPL in 1992. He was led to believe that the library finished processing the collection in 1997, but later learned that the processing was not in fact finished until 2010. In addition, Brodeur was

notified ... that [NYPL] no longer wanted three-fourths of his papers. He was instructed to either retrieve the undesired documents or to allow the library to destroy them ... [Mr. Brodeur] was livid. In a June 2010 letter to the library demanding the return of his entire collection, Mr. Brodeur wrote, "I no longer have confidence in the New York Public Library's stewardship of the papers I donated more than 18 years ago."

The record for the collection indicates that it now contains 53 boxes, not the 320 Mr. Brodeur originally donated. The library explained to him that "as they did with every donation, they had carefully weeded out what would be useful ... (original letters and rare primary documents) amd excluded less-meaningful artifacts (photocopied news stories and multiple drafts of New Yorker writings)."

NYPL's disposition of the papers is consistent with the deed of gift Mr. Brodeur signed, in which he relinquished all rights to his papers. However, why did it take the library almost two decades to process the collection and decide it did not want the bulk of it? Mr. Brodeur apparently had no reason to believe that the collection was not processed in 1997, when he was told that the "documents had been reviewed and prepared for public viewing" and invited to tour the archives by a senior curator. As Richard J. Cox, Jr., a professor of archival studies at the University of Pittsburgh points out, the library decision seems to have come "out of the blue." Mr. Brodeur now regrets his decision to donate his papers to NYPL, and is vowing to "continue fighting for the return of all his work. 'None of this would have happened if the library had decided to return my collection.'"

Felix Salmon's blog post on this topic highlights an essential lack of meeting of the minds on the part of NYPL and Brodeur. The library sees Brodeur as a writer, and deems only what he actually wrote to be of archival value and worth saving. Brodeur, however, sees himself as an investigative journalist; to him, the sources he used are of equal value and equally worth preserving. As Salmon says:
The NYPL is treating Brodeur as it would an imaginative novelist, which seems to me to be something of a category error. All writers are not the same, and if you’re going to go to the trouble of archiving a journalist’s work, you should take the subject matter of the journalism seriously and also preserve the record of how that writer wrote, on top of what that writer wrote.

What will happen to the bulk of Brodeur's materials which were rejected by NYPL? Brodeur has constructed a storage shed at his home on Cape Cod where he is planning to store them. This is not a secure facility and does not have climate control. Nor is it easily accessible to potential researchers. Victims of asbestos exposure are fearful about the possible loss of Brodeur's sources because they consider them to be a unique font of information available nowhere else. Brodeur's own account of the controversy is available on the Authors Guild website.

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