In 2006, when the Boston Public Library’s vast collection of rare books and manuscripts was in great need of repair, a concerned patron offered to help preserve some of its irreplaceable treasures.
“I just want to save some books,” the patron said.
That simple offer led to a $100,000 gift in 2008, then a $500,000 donation in 2010, and another $500,000 pledge this month, all under condition of anonymity, that have startled and thrilled the caretakers of the treasures housed at the country’s oldest public library.
Nothing about the donor was disclosed, not even gender, by Vivian Spiro, chairwoman of the Associates of the Boston Public Library, an independent group that received the gifts. The patron, Spiro said, is “an example of citizens of good will who care about the library and love it.”
As a result, the library’s ongoing work to catalog, conserve, and digitize works in its special collections, which hold more than one million items ranging from early printed books to abolitionist broadsides, will continue apace.
“This is critical to the work that we do,” said Beth Prindle, manager of exhibitions and programming at the library. “I see it as being such a wonderful continuum, because the library itself has such a history of private philanthropy that has supported it.”
Plans have not been made for the new gift, which is being channeled through the Boston Foundation, but the previous donation of $500,000 has helped pay for positions in the library’s conservation lab, in exhibitions and outreach, and in the digitization lab.
In addition, new equipment has been bought for the conservation lab, and the library has been able to send vulnerable items elsewhere for complicated repair.
“This is part of our whole cultural patrimony,” Spiro said. “We have an imperative to help these things remain viable and make sure they stay accessible to the public at no cost.”
The Associates of the Boston Public Library is a nonprofit group dedicated to conserving the institution’s rare books, manuscripts, and other historical items.
A focus of the anonymous donor’s first two grants was the abolitionist movement, which was intensely active in Boston under the leadership of William Lloyd Garrison. Items that have been cataloged and put online include some of Garrison’s personal copies of The Liberator, the most famous antislavery publication in the United States; the paper’s subscriber books; and minutes from meetings of the Executive Committee of the American Anti-
The work has paid off in dramatic ways. The library’s anti-slavery materials are now among its most frequently used collections. “If that can happen, the other collections may well engage people the same way,” Spiro said. “That’s what we’re hoping.”
Amy Ryan, the library president, said the gift is a reminder of the generosity that has given the Boston Public Library, with 22 million holdings, the second-largest overall collection in the country after the Library of Congress.
“It’s just an ocean of wonderfulness,” Ryan said.
The gift dovetails with a recent decision by the library to designate 18 Collections of Distinction, including the abolitionist material, the John Adams personal library, and a massive cache of Shakespeare-related material.
“Once a collection of distinction is identified, our commitment to that collection is clear,” Ryan said.
For Prindle, the exhibitions manager, the fun is about to begin as she and library staff begin pondering how best to put the latest gift to use.
“We really get to delve into the collections,” Prindle said, expecting to uncover fascinating markers of history that might not have been handled for a century. “For us, there’s a constant state of rediscovery.”
The hope, she said, is that staff will have identified the latest, key candidates for conservation by midspring.
“I have a feeling that we’ll be finding some pretty extraordinary stuff,’’ Prindle said.
The donation will also allow the Associates to build up the David McCullough Conservation Fund, named for the historian and former Boston Public Library trustee and often used to pay for preservation projects. The hope, Spiro said, is to make the fund into an endowment.
“We’ve been eating our seed corn, which is not good,” Spiro said. A well-managed endowment, she added, “will provide the library with a consistent source of funds to keep basic conservation activities going.”
And that work, Spiro said, is one of “the core missions of the library.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@