Rare books latest casualties of Rockford College debt

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StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117329699229472.jpg’, ‘Image courtesy of www.traditionsusa.com‘, ‘Rockford College’s motto is decus et veritas—Honor and Truth.‘);

Six months after auctioning off about 2,000 pieces of art, Rockford College now has plans to put the school’s rare book collection on the block.

The Sept. 10 and 11 art auctions, which brought in more than $1 million, were necessary to help pay down $10 million in loans and debts to vendors, according to a Sept. 13 Chicago Sun-Times report.

Liquidation of the rare books is the school’s latest attempt at reducing the sizable debt that’s plagued the private liberal arts college for decades.

“The Board of Trustees has thoughtfully looked at all of our strategies, and asset deployment is one of them,” indicated Vice President for College Development, and former Rockford mayor, John McNamara. “It’s been going very well.”

“What has happened is a result of years of financial difficulties that the college has had,” explained Edith McCauley, who has been president of the Friends of the Howard Colman Library for 23 years. “They’ve resorted to selling off assets, and this has been done for many, many years; including the land that they owned when they bought the new campus.”

“I think it has been, over the years, a pattern that the administration has used when they get into financial difficulties,” McCauley suggested. “To go to the resources of the college and use them to solve their financial problems.”

Some pieces, however, will be spared the auction block.

“We’re not selling all of the collection,” McNamara pointed out. “We are not selling the books that are critical to the history of the college.”

McNamara said Rockford College will retain pieces related to its most famous alumna, Jane Addams. McNamara also noted no items from the archival room will be sold.

“We tried to do it in a sensitive way,” McNamara said, “and still address the needs of the college at this time and preserving those in our collection that are integral parts of the college’s history.”

The first of two book auctions will be March 16, when 14 of Rockford College’s most valuable books will be up for grabs.

“We’re having a select-few pieces,” McNamara explained, “that will be auctioned off in Chicago at Leslie Hindman, which is the same firm that handled the art sale.”

In the interest of not affecting the auction, McNamara would not say how much the school hopes to reap from the sale.

McNamara reported the balance of the collection will be auctioned in mid to late April.

Among the items to be sold is the Bertha Holbrook Collection of A-B-C books.

“I get really sad about that because they were wonderful as a teaching tool for me and for my students,” remarked Nancy Bloomstrand, who teaches children’s literature and is a board member of the Friends of the Colman Library.

Bloomstrand said approximately 2,000 A-B-C books make up the Holbrook Collection.

“When she [Holbrook] passed away, her husband gave it to Rockford College,” Bloomstrand explained. “There were a couple of other colleges that wanted the collection, and he chose to give it to Rockford College because she was an alumna there.”

“I’m rather hoping that as they sell it, it won’t have to be broken up,” Bloomstrand added. “I’m hoping that maybe a university or college somewhere will be interested enough in it to buy it intact so that it will be available to other teachers, other students.”

Some fear parting with such gifts may be sending the wrong message to potential donors.

“It’s reasonable to expect that not a lot of people will be donating artworks or books to the library,” noted Fred Pearlman, also of the Friends of the Colman Library. “It’s not likely to raise all that much money, which makes it all the more regrettable.”

“When things like that are given to the school, it is implicit that they then belong to the college,” McCauley acknowledged. “The college then has the power to do anything with them that they want.”

“It’s unfortunate, not so much because these books are so precious,” Pearlman said. “It’s unfortunate because of what it tells you about the college and about the situation it’s in.”

Rockford College and Friends of the Colman Library agree the school simply doesn’t have the resources to adequately prolong the life of the collection.

“It is not the best atmosphere for some of the older books,” McNamara commented. “While they have been very carefully cared for over the years, it’s still not the type of room atmosphere that somebody would want for a book that’s, let’s just say, a couple hundred years old.”

“It is not a room that has humidity or temperature control, so a lot of the books were beginning to deteriorate,” McCauley stated, adding the Friends had twice tried, unsuccessfully, to obtain grants for the college’s collection of rare books.

“Perhaps, someone who buys them will be able to preserve it better than we were able to at Rockford College with our limited funds,” Bloomstrand said.

“I do have regrets about the kinds of things that I value, which are the books,” McCauley concluded. “Those will no longer be a part of the heritage of Rockford College.”

Although many feel the sale of capital assets is a short-term solution to an ongoing problem, Rockford College officials say they’re dedicated to bringing the school’s finances back in order.

McNamara said, “I think we have made pretty enormous strides in the eight months that President Kneedler has been here in paying down our debts and, equally important, restructuring how we do business so that we are living within our means and budgeting and spending more carefully.”

To view or bid on the Rockford College rare books, visit: http://www.lesliehindman.com

From the March 7-13, 2007, issue

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