Nearly 2,000 documents from America’s colonial era have spent half a century on loan to Yale, and the owners of those centuries-old items now say they are overdue.
The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library currently holds the collection, which were loaned to Yale for safekeeping in 1952 by the Pequot Library of Southport, Conn. But some of Pequot’s current trustees have asked the University to return the documents, and the suburban library has alleged in a court application that Yale officials threatened to terminate protection of the documents unless Pequot ceded ownership of the collection to the University.
Beinecke Director Frank Turner denied any such exchange has taken place.
“There’s no controversy there,” Turner said. “It’s their property, and we have no problem with that.”
George Miles, Beinecke’s curator of western Americana, also said his office had not discussed a renegotiation of ownership before Pequot filed its court application. He said the University learned of the Pequot grievance from items in the local press.
But Pequot trustees tell a different story. Christopher Rosow, president of Pequot’s board of trustees, said Miles spoke with trustees in 2003 and he asserted that Yale should be granted full legal custody of the collection.
“We’ve talked to Yale and have gotten some new information from people there, so we want to make sure we have all the facts on hand,” Rosow said.
Pequot’s hearing on the application, filed earlier this year in a Fairfield, Conn. probate court, was originally set for this Thursday, but has been postponed indefinitely. To cover costs of housing the rare collection of 1,874 colonial-area books, letters and other papers, Pequot is seeking court approval to sell 38 of the items, most notably a 1493 account by Christopher Columbus of his first voyage to the Americas.
The 38 items that Pequot wants to sell are historically valuable, but Rosow said the suburban library sees little need for them since they do not serve the collection’s core focus on colonial New England. They are more valuable to Yale, Miles said, because the documents related to European exploration and Indian culture offer more historical value to the University than many of the collection’s American pieces.
“Many of them are just single letters from famous diplomats and politicians of the period,” Miles said, adding that they sometimes seem like pages of an “autograph book.” “However, many of them are real gems.”
The Pequot loan agreement is unique within the Yale library system in that the University maintains and catalogs the collection with the same care as with its own property. Librarians have published the items in the Beinecke catalog since moving them from Sterling Memorial Library’s rare books room — now called the Manuscripts and Archives department — more than 40 years ago.
The language of the original agreement called for Yale to maintain the collection for five years while Pequot collected the money required to preserve the documents. But the Southport library did not reclaim the collection. Since then, the standing agreement has been terminable by either party with six months notice.
Yale had not considered terminating the agreement in recent years due to a substantial investment in maintenance of the collection, Miles said.
“While caring for it is a continual obligation and there are some expenses with it, we have made a significant investment in the past, and we would prefer to be able to continue to make the collection available to the Yale community and the international community,” Miles said. “We don’t gain in any significant way if we throw the collection out on the street or send it back to Southport.”
Rosow said a new expansion of the Pequot facilities has granted the suburban library more space for the valuable collection, though he said security concerns may limit public access to the collection.
“Anybody should have a right to look at it, but you’ve got to temper collection access with collection security,” Rosow said. “We have a very small collection, so it’s not like we expect multiple demands on the resource at the same time.”
Though Miles said Yale has no plans to invoke its right to terminate the agreement, Rosow said his board’s recent discussions with Yale officials have not led them to rule out the possibility.