The road to Acquisitions Night 2012

This Thursday is Acquisitions Night, the annual benefit to support Folger collections. It’s something of a three-ring circus: buffet dinner in the Great Hall, conservation demonstrations at one end of the Paster Reading Room, and—in the center ring—dozens of newly-acquired vault items spread through the rest of the reading room for visitors to enjoy and, perhaps, adopt. Since “Acq Night” is very much on my mind this week, I thought this might be a good opportunity for a curator’s-eye-view of the event.

Acquisitions Night 2009

“Adoption” is a bit of a misnomer, since you don’t get to take the item home with you, but you do get visitation rights, and the item receives a gift plate in your name or in honor of someone you choose. 

Blank gift plate

Essentially, adopting means reimbursing the Folger the actual purchase price of the item so that the money previously used to pay for it can be freed up to buy something else. In other words, income from Acq Night replenishes the acquisitions budget so that it will (we hope) last until the new fiscal year starts on July 1.

This means we think about Acq Night year-round, every time we make a purchase, whether it is at auction, from a dealer’s catalog, from a book or print fair, or via direct quote from dealers familiar with the Folger’s Collection Development Policy. At the time of ordering, we have to decide whether the item is potentially adoptable, in which case it needs to be paid for from regular funds, not one of the Restricted Endowment Funds, or REFs. There is no double-dipping: if an item is paid for from the Your Name Here Acquisitions Endowment, it has already been adopted, as it were.

What makes an item potentially adoptable? From a practical point of view, it needs to be reasonably affordable. We occasionally put some doozies out, so people know that it can easily take $25,000 or $50,000 to purchase a single item (and so that we can show off those items), but we don’t realistically expect them to be adopted. Even three or four friends chipping in together aren’t likely to come up with $50,000 in one evening (though if they keep at it, it’s always possible to make a post-Acq Night adoption. Just give us a call!). Adoptable items also have to be reasonably attractive and interesting at first glance. Scholars doing scholarship can spend days discovering the importance of a single item. Scholars attending Acq Night have the same time limit as everyone else.

As Acq Night approaches, the list of possibilities has to be narrowed down to what will fit in the Reading Room. We always have a larger pool than we need just in case something turns out to be not as attractive and interesting as it seemed at first. Personally, I do two rounds of cuts. First, I just re-read my list to eliminate anything that looks like it would be hard to explain in a label. Next, I take snapshots of everything that remains to eliminate things that look “meh.” This year, that left me with a total of seventy-two items (more than will fit in one screen shot).

A fraction of the art

Luckily, several of them could be described as a group, even though they’re priced by the each, so I only had to write twenty-four labels. For example, we purchased a set of 100 drawings of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis by Hablot (“Phiz”) Knight Browne, but they’re mounted in twenty groups of five, so that’s one label for twenty adoptables.

Hablot “Phiz” Knight Brown. Five of one hundred drawings to illustrate Shakespeare's ‘Venus and Adonis,’ ca. 1850-1860?

About two weeks before Acq Night, we gather all the items together to do a “dry run” lay-out after the Reading Room closes for the day. This lets us make sure we can fit everything on the tables while at the same time allowing the Head of Conservation to see which books need to be strapped into custom cradles, and which can simply be supported on Vivak wedges held stable by temporary felt tablecloths (the green foam Clarkson supports normally used for books would take up too much room).

Vivak wedges and cradles from Acquisitions Night 2009

About one week before Acq Night, selected items go up on the Folger website so that people who can’t come in person have a chance to adopt online. That explains why some things set out at Acq Night are already flagged “Adopted” when the doors open. They’re still displayed, they just happen to have been snapped up by someone online beforehand.

On the night, preparation of the Reading Room starts the moment the last reader leaves for the day. Felt custom-cut for each of the Paster Reading Room tables gets rolled out, to help keep the various bits from sliding around (and when I say “custom cut” I mean that three of us spent an evening a few years ago with tape measures, rotary cutters, and cutting mats, measuring and trimming bolts of felt we bought at G Street Fabrics). Using the diagram made during the “dry run,” we set out labels and Vivak wedges, like setting a dinner table. Finally, the trucks of vault items get wheeled out, each item with a numbered flag corresponding to the hand-list attendees receive.

Acquisitions Night 2012 books ready to go

Once everything is in its place, it’s show time! The evening is also known in-house as Folger Prom—it’s the night where even staff members who normally work behind-the-scenes in chinos and sweaters put on suits and dresses to enjoy a festive celebration of the collection with its many supporters.

Acquisitions Night 2009

We hope we’ll see some of you there, if not in person, then perhaps online!

Author: Erin Blake

ERIN BLAKE is Interim Head of Collection Information Services and Cataloging at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and also the Folger's Curator of Art & Special Collections, a remit that covers prints, drawings, photographs, paintings, porcelain figurines, playbills, Shakespeare souvenirs, and anything else that isn't a printed book or manuscript. She teaches History of Printed Book Illustration in the West at Rare Book School, and is chief editor of Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials (Graphics).

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