Librarians woo foreign booksellers

For Slavic and Eastern European Collections Curator Tatjana Lorkovic, building a relationship with Russian librarians is like a courtship, complete with trips to country homes in Siberian villages, meals in the garden and steamed baths with colleagues. Lorkovic said that in order to be successful at her job, which involves obtaining books from librarians and other vendors all over Eastern Europe, it is important for her to become “buddy-buddy” with her Russian colleagues.

“It’s not Amazon.com,” Lorkovic said. “You have to be a schmoozer, you have to be their friend. You bring gifts for their children, a book of American stamps for their grandchildren. You can’t believe how many books I got here in exchange for Maybelline eye shadow.”

While Yale students may think librarians spend their days cooped up in Sterling Memorial Library cataloging dusty books, curators like Lorkovic travel around the world — from Timbuktu to Yekaterinburg — on acquisitions trips. In today’s technological world, curators said, they can order a majority of their books through online vendors. Thus, a major purpose of the trips is for curators to seek out new vendors and sources such as nongovernmental organizations or governments, and to cultivate relationships with existing vendors.

Curators said they travel to the countries in their specialty regions once every other year on trips that are funded jointly by MacMillan Center grants and the Yale University Library. Most of the curators have previously lived in the regions they cover, speak the local language and have personal friends in the area.

Africana Collection Curator Dorothy Woodson said that even though she has worked for the Peace Corps and lived in Swaziland, it was still an adventure to travel on a 10-day trip across the Sahara. With live chickens jumping over her head in the jeep, she traveled from Bamako, Mali, to Timbuktu, collecting primary source materials in various towns along the way.

Having a base of family and friends in Israel, Judaica Collection Curator Nanette Stahl said, has made it easier for her to meet new dealers and seek out less well-known ones on her trips. She said it is important to have a personal relationship with dealers because they may otherwise auction off their books to wealthy private collectors.

“A lot of the success you have in acquiring rare and unusual materials is really to build up relationships with the dealers who sell them and to hope that when they do get interesting materials, they offer it to you first so that you get a chance in purchasing them,” Stahl said.

Latin American Collection Curator Cesar Rodriguez said his trips are important because getting materials from government offices or NGOs is often difficult and requires charm tactics and “ingenious” methods.

“Once, I was able to get back issues of a journal from a research institute by promising the receptionist that I would buy her some basic food items (coffee, soap, etc.) from the government stores that cater to foreigners,” Rodriguez said in an e-mail. “Another time, I bought a pair of shoes for a clerk in a Cuban government’s office and in exchange he gave me some interesting annual statistical reports.”

Lorkovic said she was able to exchange Maybelline eye shadow for books only as long as poor economic conditions persisted in post-communist countries in the early 1990s. Now, she brings more “sophisticated gifts,” such as Yale books, perfume and duty-free chocolates, to her Russian and Eastern European colleagues, she said.

Lorkovic said she now exchanges books published by the Yale University Press for those she receives from Russia and Eastern European librarians and vendors. Some of the books Lorkovic obtains do not have a list price, she said, so she has to assess their trade value herself. But she said she does not worry too much about determining the exact value of each book, as she sees them as a long-term investment in a book-trading relationship.

“You don’t go book by book, you don’t go title by title, you don’t go money by money, you have general feeling if a library is providing books for you,” Lorkovic said. “Sometimes you get people who send and send but never ask for anything. This is ridiculous, but it happens. And then you get requests for 50 books from people who don’t send you anything.”

But not all curators obtain books through exchange. Woodson said that because her Congo contacts operate with few financial resources, she must pay for the books before they are shipped.

“It’s actually surprising how much publication there is on a continent besieged with war, disease, conflict, poverty,” Woodson said. “It’s really quite amazing, especially in a place such as Congo, where they have basically been in war for many decades and yet they produce high-quality, scholarly, nonparochial materials on social sciences, economics [and] religion.”

Some curators said visa and security limitations preclude them from traveling to all of the countries in their region. Under such conditions, they said, they may rely on others to send them books. Woodson said she has a Canadian vendor who collects materials for Yale when he travels to countries such as Chad, Sudan and Niger, which are sometimes dangerous and difficult to reach.

Sarah Elman, the associate curator of the East Asian Library, has traveled to China and Taiwan to meet with leaders of gay rights organizations and to look for archival materials as part of an initiative to collect international LGBT materials. She said the recent decentralization of state-run vendors and the increased number of private vendors in China has not only made it easier for her to obtain most published materials, but has also significantly lowered the price of books. Previously, Chinese vendors used to charge overseas libraries as much as eight times the domestic list price, she said.

Most curators said they find vendors through annual librarian conferences, book fairs and their colleagues at other institutions. Rodriguez said that regardless of how poor a country may be, its book industry is usually well-established.

But establishing vendor contacts is not always easy, some curators said. Lorkovic said the U.S.S.R. had a centralized, government-approved bookseller that sent books to Western countries. But after the collapse of Communism, she said, it was challenging to establish new networks for book acquisition. Lorkovic said she helped organize seminars across Russia and set up exchanges of regional books for Yale University Press books.

“Free press is always bettered than a controlled one; free trade is always better than controlled trade,” Lokovic said. “But it is hectic; the Communists had everything under control. Afterwards, you have to be creative to find ways to get everything you want.”

In an effort to build contacts in the region, Lorkovic said, Yale also has an internship program that brings librarians from East and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union to work with Yale librarians in New Haven.

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