Sunday, October 18, 2015

Deaccessioning in the NYT Ethicist Column

Sort of.

(And last one this morning, I promise.)

A few weeks ago, the great Kwame Anthony Appiah fielded a question from a librarian at a "large public university" who was upset about the library's plan to deaccession a bunch of books.

He starts his answer by declaring that "public institutions are a public trust."  Uh oh.

But it's not clear exactly what he has in mind by that.  He seems to suggest what it means is that "any citizen ... has the right to ask whether those who run them are carrying out the purposes for which they've been chartered."  Okay, if that's all it means, I can go along with that.

He then goes on to say:  "But the decisions you’re talking about don’t sound morally wrong. They reflect a judgment at odds with your own; they don’t reflect corruption, abuse or a total abandonment of the institution’s pur­poses."

I can really sign on to that.  That could work as a standard for evaluating any sale by a museum. Get rid of the silly "use of proceeds" distinction.  Instead, ask:  does this sale reflect corruption, abuse, or an abandonment of the institution's purposes?  (I'm willing to give up "total" in Appiah's formulation.)  If the answer is yes, then go ahead and raise hell.  If the answer is no, then it's just "a judgment at odds with your own."  Relax.

(Also, in response to a separate question in the same column, Appiah has some interesting things to say that bear on the question of donor intent.  He mentions the case of Franz Kafka, who had "asked his friend and executor Max Brod to destroy all his papers and manuscripts when he died, and we’re glad Brod didn’t. Yet there’s more to the story. Brod had warned Kafka that he would never do so — this, too, was a solemn vow — and believed that if Kafka really wanted this bonfire, he would have appointed another executor. That matters, too."  I agree, and have always felt that donor intent is a much more complex thing than the anti-deaccessionists like to pretend.)