What would you have bought? The scrapbook from the 1893 World’s Fair (kept by a member of a state board of Lady Managers for their state’s exhibit?) The only known copy of a poster for a Wild West Frontier Exhibition and European Circus? A massive encyclopedia of world religions? One of only thirty copies of a modern artist’s concept of The Charge of the Light Brigade? A scarce little travel guide about the beauties of Illinois and Iowa, as seen from the windows of a Chicago and North-Western train?
You could have bid on any or all of these last night at Booked for the Evening, the latest gala and bookish event at the Newberry. The catch was, of course, that you would not have been allowed to take any of these things home once you bought them.
The idea behind the auction was that the items in the 21-slot auction were the things Newberry would like to have. You were given a chance to have your name associated forever with that item by bidding for the right to pay for it so it could enter the collection. (A few items were not single objects but special projects, from stabilizing the ink in an important manuscript to helping pay to catalog all those books the collection picked up from the Book Fair all these years.)
Of course, the chance to be a specific benefactor (I bought them THAT) was a wonderful thing, but it was nothing compared to what was going on around each bidsheet.
Seem each item or project was represented not only by the physical object but by a member of staff waiting to explain just what the story of the thing was, and what it meant to the library. Each was also prepared to explain what ELSE your money would go for if the bidding went far beyond the posted price of the item. (Which it did in almost all cases, since the minimum allowed bid was the purchase price. There was no sense taking a five dollar bid on a six thousand dollar item, after all.)
Some of the staff are fairly public, but others work largely in seclusion, so it was a rare opportunity, which both the guests and the staff took full advantage of. What is this thing? Why do you want it? What else do you have like it? How long have you been collecting THAT? (I had no idea that the Newberry has such a large collection of items dealing with silk culture.)
Yes, the items had been chosen so they’d be interesting, but the conversations that broke out around the libretto of the horse ballet, or the unmatched collection of political postcards published by an indignant soul in downstate Illinois were alone worth the price of admission. People were calling their friends over to hear the story of Bernarr MacFadden (inventor of the tabloid newspaper, among other things) and the collection of broadsides which constituted a nineteenth century equivalent of Facebook posts.
It was a two-way street. The bidders told about similar things they’d seen, and where (giving the staff a few good leads) and spoke about what interested them about the stories. (It is always useful for a library to know what the patrons find fascinating.)
So joy was unbound…no, that’s not true. Many of the books were bound. But it was that kind of evening, with food and drink. (That was Uncle Blogsy’s job of the evening: leaning in to ask people to set down their wineglass before getting too close to the books. “They’re not ours yet, after all.”) If customers wanted to try it, a signature drink had been chosen for the evening, a concoction called a Happy Librarian. (As the evening’s emcee pointed out, one could drink a Happy Librarian, or go bid on something and make a Librarian happy.)
In the end, all but one item sold, and bidding went far enough over the limits that we’ll be able to pay for that one anyhow. The Book Fair books will be catalogued, the big geographically, historically, and genealogically important atlas of Delta County, Michigan will be shelved upstairs where it belongs, the Conservation volunteers will get material to make protective boxes, and the picture guide to Riverside, Illinois will be available among other important books on local history.
And the staff and the guests, once they recover from the effects of too many Happy Librarians, will be happy in the information they shared during the evening. Everyone got more than they booked for. If you missed it, you may wish to think about booking a place at the auction Next Year.