Remembering Louis Booker Wright, Defender of America’s Privately Supported Research Libraries
And knowledgeable observer of, and commentator on, philanthropy.
It has been nearly 40 years since Louis Booker Wright was laid to rest. As a scholar, Wright was well-known for his research into Elizabethan England, William Shakespeare, and early U.S. history, including that of his native South Carolina. He was also closely connected to, and quite familiar with, key 20th Century American philanthropists.
Wright worked as an administrator at Henry Huntington’s Huntington Library from 1932 to 1948, and he led Henry Clay Folger’s Folger Shakespeare Library from 1948 to 1968. For the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, founded by Simon and Olga Guggenheim, Wright served on its advisory board from 1942 to 1971 and chaired its fellowship selection committee for the U.S. and Canada from 1950 to 1971.
Wright wielded a lively pen, and his literary estate includes many academic papers, several lectures, and two volumes of personal memoirs, plus a compilation of articles he wrote for an official Folger newsletter. (This summarizes what is public; it is not clear if Folger, Huntington or Guggenheim may have additional, relevant archival material filed away.)
And he acted for many years as an occasional spokesperson for and public defender of what he regarded as a uniquely American philanthropic innovation—the creation and financial endowment of numerous large-scale, private, research libraries by donors to both stimulate scholarship and preserve knowledge. These included not just the Folger and Huntington libraries, but also the Morgan Library in New York and the Newberry in Chicago, among others.
“A century and a half ago,” Wright said in a 1976 speech,
no scholar could write a book on this continent that required any depth of investigation in books or historical documents. Thanks to our inheritance of collections painstakingly gathered by English collectors, American libraries are now so well supplied that Europeans often come to the United States to study their own history and literature. This development has occurred not without some agonized cries from abroad. Europeans have complained about the drain of literary and historical treasures from the old World to the New. When a member of a visiting group of English scholars once groused that certain books in the Folger Library “ought never to have been allowed out of the country,” he was silenced by a wise colleague. “If these books had remained in some English country house, you would never have had access to them,” he declared, “or they might just have rotted away. Here they are preserved for scholars from any country.”
For such American libraries to continue to flourish, Wright warned, they must remain focused on their mission of serving the needs of scholars, and thereby preserve their status as tax-exempt bodies. “Unless we provide maximum utility to the professional scholars for whose use our collections are designed, we are paving the way to our own destruction,” he wrote in 1949.
The burden of proof is upon us to prove that we are indeed what we pretend to be—institutions for the advancement of learning. If we interpose unnecessary barriers to the scholarly use of our collections, and if we are either so exclusive or so precious that we really serve no significant and demonstrable purpose, we are certain to be taxed out of existence.
He added—some 20 years before the 1969 Tax Act Reform debate over tax-exempt foundations—that foundations
inevitably will come under closer government scrutiny in the next few years. Endowed libraries, set up under some form of charter, must answer to the proper state or federal authorities for use of their trust funds. Even if a high sense of dedication to learning does not suggest increasing the endowed research library’s usefulness, a concern for self-preservation ought to.
And in a 1957 paper, Wright observed,
It should be a platitude by now that the privately endowed library of rare books has no justification for existence unless it serves in the advancement of learning by making its literary resources availble to qualified scholars. If there was ever a time when a magnficient library, brought together by the zeal of a private collector of means, could stand unused as a mausoleum and monument to the founder, that day has gone forever. If the enlightened consciences of trustees and administrators did not provide for the effective use of such libraries, the hungry tax-collector would soon swoop down upon them. [emphasis added]
In the 1976 speech, Wright included this defense of what we would today recognize as “donor intent.” “The privately endowed libraries are not rolling in money,” he said,
but their endowments are sufficient for orderly growth, modest subsidizing of scholars, and useful publication programs—providing they are not persuaded to squander their funds on non-library functions. It is a tragedy for the world of learning when ill-advised trustees and administrators induce any of these libraries to waste resources upon undertakings for which they have no vocation, no experience, and inadequate skills.
During his years at the Folger Library, Wright regularly acknowledged the generous support provided by the Ford Foundation to foster cooperation among the country’s great research libraries. He did not, however, see Ford as a sacred cow, and he was not shy about publicly chiding the foundation when he thought it warranted.
In a 1962 Folger Library newsletter, Wright mused about the need in Washington, D.C., for “temporary living quarters” that could be made available to “foreign and native intellectual leaders” conducting research in the national capital. He observed that “[a] suggestion of this need to the Ford Foundation elicited the response that ‘there is no way in which this suggestion can be fitted into the regular framework of our program activities’ and ‘our program objectives for the coming year do not permit us to pursue this matter further.’”
With tongue in cheek, Wright observed, “A great opportunity to make a constructive move in the national interest still lies open to some foundation not congealed in procedural lava. Sooner or later some philanthropic organization with initiative, imagination, and wisdom will undertake to provide a center in Washington for intellectual leaders.”
Wright later happily noted in his memoir, 1976’s Of Books and Men, that this vision was realized at least partially through the Woodrow Wilson Foundation’s decision to fund the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (established in 1968), in a partnership with the Smithsonian Institution.
With 2024 set to mark the 40th anniversary of Wright’s passing, it may be timely for some energetic scholar to comb through this articulate, witty man’s public writings and speeches, as well as his private papers, and perhaps uncover additional insights into 20th Century American philanthropy.
This article originally appeared in the Giving Review on August 26, 2022.