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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · March 08, 2018

Remarks from "Private Funding in the Humanities," AHA session #289

Lapidus Initiative 18 min read

The following is a transcript of remarks given by Sid Lapidus during session #289, “Private Funding in the Humanities,” at the January 2018 American Historical Association meeting in Washington, D.C.

Introduction by Karin Wulf

At the January 2018 meeting of the American Historical Association, I chaired a session, put together by the program committee, on the vital subject of private funding for the humanities.  Data collected by the Humanities Indicators Project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences shows that current annual public funding for the humanities through the National Endowment for the Humanities and state humanities councils is roughly $175 million.  Private funding, from individuals, corporations, and foundations is roughly $17 billion.  Understanding and exploring private funding as a force for humanities support is thus quite critical for organizations and individual scholars.  

The panelists included Jennifer Brier of the University of Illinois, Chicago, Gene Tobin of the Mellon Foundation, and Sid Lapidus, OI Board member and an important philanthropist supporting early American history and the histories of race and slavery.  Jennie talked about her experience navigating corporate funding, and the significant role development professionals at every university can play in assisting their faculty with this process.  Gene’s remarks addressed some of the key challenges Mellon grants have been supporting, including innovative scholarly communications infrastructure, and diversity; he also underscored the essential role of the humanities in fostering democracy.

Sid gave us an inside, personal look at how he came to philanthropy, the importance of collectors to the scholarly ecosystem, and in particular his interest as a collector in supporting engagement with his collections for producing transformative scholarship. He also discussed the iterative process of program development when organizations and funders collaborate.

We are grateful to Sid for the many ways he supports scholars and scholarship, one of which is by sharing these reflections with us.  –Karin Wulf

We have edited Mr. Lapidus’s text, intended as spoken remarks, for ease of reading.

January 6, 2018

As you know, I am not an historian.

But in order for you to better understand my background and my philanthropy, and why I may have been invited to be on this panel today, I will tell you a little about myself.

The place to start is with my book collecting.

I am a serious collector of printed materials, books and pamphlets, but only a handful of manuscripts and documents. The items I collect are principally from the 18th century, and mostly about the politics, economics, and expansion of liberties in England, France, and what became the United States.

I became a collector just by chance. I graduated from Princeton in 1959, and two months later I bought my first rare book! While peering through a London bookseller’s dusty window, I noticed a 1792 edition of Tom Paine’s “Rights of Man.” Paine had been my neighbor in New Rochelle, NY. I passed his homestead daily going to and from New Rochelle High School. Since the price of the Paine pamphlet was less than $5, (and that was about all I could afford at that time) I bought it.

My collecting career had started.

I majored in history at Princeton, but I was just an average student. Although I was exposed to many history professors, I had no interest in history as a career, or in wanting to know more about the growth of liberties in the western world. And the thought of book collecting never crossed my mind. While growing up in the 1940s, the only things I collected were the usual boyhood things: stamps, coins, and baseball cards. In hindsight, the major influence on what I would collect was the legendary Princeton history professor, R.R. Palmer. As I recall, as a sophomore I took Palmer’s course, “The Age of the Democratic Revolution.”

The first volume of Palmer’s pioneering work was not published until 1959, the year I graduated. When I took his course, Palmer would hand out mimeographed copies of his latest chapter for us to read for the following week. Palmer, and indeed Paine, viewed the Age of Revolution as a transatlantic phenomenon. And, as a student and then as a collector, I assumed all historians viewed the world the same way Palmer did. I was wrong. History departments seem to be still mainly populated by what I call “ists” – Europeanists, Americanists, etc. Perhaps the most important and influential 18th century “transatlanticist” by his writings and actions was none other than Tom Paine.

After graduating from Columbia Law School, I became a lawyer at the SEC in New York for four years. As I didn’t want to continue as a lawyer, when a great opportunity came along I joined a small investment firm, now called Warburg Pincus. It became one of the pioneers and leading firms in what is now known as the “private equity” business. I formally retired from Warburg in 2009, but I still keep my office there. I celebrated fifty years of being connected with the firm this past October. Because of my successful business career, I gradually accumulated enough capital to become a serious collector.

To be a serious collector, one has to have at least the following three attributes:

  • Interest in the subject
  • Adequate time to devote to it
  • Enough discretionary funds to spend

I am fortunate that over time I developed all three.

Collecting gradually became my avocation, although I have always been conscious of not making my avocation into an obsession. (My wife sees to that!) Like most of you historians, I spend a good portion of my intellectual life in the 18th century and earlier.

A few comments on my collecting career.

  • Unlike many other serious collectors, I have done it alone, and without paid advisors.
  • I have never bought books in bulk; they were bought one at a time.
  • I buy mostly from many rare book dealers in the U.S. and Europe, and occasionally at auctions.

Over a collecting lifetime I have bought about 3,500 items, of which probably at least 80% were first editions.

What remains in my library is about 2,000 items. As I have never sold any items, the decrease in my collections is due to the many gifts I have made over the years to worthy institutions. In particular, in 2009 on the occasion of my 50th reunion, I donated about 160 items to Princeton for a major six-month exhibition at Firestone Library entitled, “Liberty and the American Revolution, Selections from the Library of Sid Lapidus.” The exhibit was accompanied by a prize-winning catalog. Among the books included were first editions by such British authors as Hobbes, Harrington, Locke, Adam Smith, and Burke; and American authors: Phillis Wheatley, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay in The Federalist Papers, Jefferson, and my friend, Tom Paine.

About four years ago, I donated my entire collection of about 500 items relating to slavery and the slave trade in the 17th and 18th century transatlantic world to an affiliate of the New York Public Library, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black History and Culture, located in Harlem. With funding from me and an annual funding commitment from the New York Public Library, the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery was created. I still buy and donate slavery items to the Lapidus Center, where my collection has increased by about 25% since the initial gift. Many of these newly purchased items pertain to the British efforts after 1810 to enforce the abolition of the slave trade. We recently held our first conference on slavery which was very successful. Our Council of Advisors includes such eminent slavery historians as David Blight, Eric Foner, Annette Gordon-Reed, and others.

Over 20 years ago, I donated to Princeton many items of secular American and European Judaica relating mainly to the contributions of and about Jews and the growth of their civil rights in the U.S. and western Europe from the 17th through the 19th century. My remaining collection of secular Judaica has recently been donated to the Center for Jewish History, of which I am a trustee, and to the Center’s affiliate, the American Jewish Historical Society, of which I am Chair. Both of these institutions are in the Center for Jewish History building on West 16th Street in New York.

Many other items were donated to two large and important archival institutions in which I also play an important role:

  • The American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass., where I have been on the Council since 1998, and its Chair since 2008.
  • And the New York Historical Society where I am a long-time trustee and Chair of its Library Committee.

I continue to buy books and donate them, as appropriate based on content, to these worthy archival institutions, plus a few others. As I want scholars and would-be scholars to use my collections, I also have donated funds over the years for fellowships, generally for non-tenured positions at the above institutions plus;

  • The Gilder-Lehrman Institute in New York, headed by Jim Basker, where I am a member of their Board of Advisors.
  • And the Omohundro Institute in Williamsburg, Virginia, led by my friend Karin Wulf. I am a long-time member of the OI’s Executive Board, now chaired by Alan Taylor, who succeeded Barbara Oberg (who remains on our board).

Serious book collectors, in particular, have three choices as to what to do with their collection as a whole or in part.

  • The first is to sell the collection.
  • The second is to keep it in the family.
  • And the third is to donate the collection to one or more archival institutions.

I have opted for the last alternative.

What is left in my library is what I call my “core collection,” most of which will go to Princeton. There is a lot left to donate! Of the almost 2,500 items remaining, perhaps up to 60% are British imprints, 30% American, and most of the rest French. The majority of these are first editions from the 18th century. Until the last five years I hadn’t bought many items pre-1700. However, I recently have been buying titles from the 1600s, and even a few from the 1500s, relating to what I call the British antecedents of American liberties. This topic is primarily about the development of British common law post the Elizabethan era and its eventual impact on us Americans.

This new collecting area arose out of my curiosity as to what was the common law that the 17th century colonists brought with them, seemingly in their intellectual DNA. The other not-so-subliminal reason is that I felt the need to fill the bookshelves that were vacated when I gifted my slavery materials.

What you historians probably implicitly know, but have little need to think about, is how important collectors are for the growth of the collections of research libraries and for you, their principal users. This is particularly true for those of us who collect “early books,” which for me are items printed prior to the 19th century. And yes, almost everything in print will probably soon be digitized. Nevertheless for many reasons, which you historians know well, having the physical book available in the relatively few research libraries that will remain is so important for present and future scholarship.

Collectors like me are the ones who buy these early books from middlemen (dealers, auction houses, etc.) and then give, and sometimes sell, all or part of our collections to archival institutions.

This is one of the most important ways in which great research libraries have been built, and continue to expand their collections of early books.

One of my guiding principles has been that “the ultimate value of collecting is in the scholarship it inspires!”

Before concluding, I’d like to make a few general comments about philanthropic giving.

Some sages have favored anonymous giving.

Although this may be fine under certain circumstances, I believe that public giving is more often even more meaningful, for both the donor and the donee.

  • First, it may inspire others to follow your example.
  • And second, it may validate for others the importance of the organization to which you give.

And by the way, as I grow older, I become even more convinced that it is much better to donate when you are alive and in good health, rather than having your executor make charitable gifts from your estate.

Again, two reasons come to mind:

  • First, the archival institutions get the books and funding sooner, and
  • Second, you and your family and friends get the pleasure, from being there when your gift is made, and thereafter.

If any of you find these suggestions useful, please use them. No attributions wanted or needed.

Thanks for coming!


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