Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Plight of Genealogy Researching Cousin Seeking Book To Illuminate Family History Shames Chagrined Library President’s Slipshod Library Housekeeping

Family genealogy work, a sought after book with an interesting story to tell, a famous library reputedly famously guarded, and a library president cousin all make for an interesting mix
Every extended family has a family historian, that go-to person for knowledge about matters of genealogy, who spends dedicated time tirelessly scouring research books and public records tracking down the yet-to-be-discovered facts and documentation about who is related to whom, where different ancestors came from and what distinguishing, fascinating accomplishments or traits may have characterized them.  Few families also have in their ranks the president of a premier library system.  There’s one family in New York that has both: It’s the family of the current president of the New York Public Library Anthony W. Marx.  Now in a tale that may lay the foundation for years of future family discord the Marx family’s historian has embarrassed the library president when, with perseverance, she tracked down on eBay a rare volume in the hands of others that had been entrusted to her cousin’s NYPL library for safe keeping.

Thirty-six-year-old Sandy Porfiry Marx, known as “Sanz” in the Marx family and still using her maiden name, is an inveterate sleuth who has compiled reams of collected historical anecdotes and facts about the family and all its branches.  Why be obsessive about particular families Sanz is asked (Sanz also does the same kind of research about families besides just the Marx family): Sanz replies that it provides a way of seeing snapshots of history raw and unfiltered through the eyes of historians who too often think they already know the shape of the past. “You find out things you never knew, things historians neglected or forgot to write about and you see different connections about how the past transitioned into the present we know today,” she says.

The collision course with her cousin Anthony (“Tony”) Marx seems to have been set because they both inevitably deal with books.  Ironically, Sanz was working on a research project she had  intended she could deliver as something of a gift to her library president cousin and his sociology professor wife Karen Barkey.  Barkey also still uses her maiden name. . .

. .  Sanz had come across a clue that an ancestor in the Barkey line, part of the Sephardic Jewish diaspora, had led a unit of men under General George Washington during the American Revolution.  This ancestor, O. Mercy Barkey, had been a printer who, printing pamphlets espousing the causes for which the revolutionaries were fighting, was sufficiently convinced by the rhetoric of the inked sheets he churned out to take up arms, committing bodily to win the war.  O. Mercy Barkey remained in the nascent U.S. after the revolution long enough to see the U.S. Constitution enacted in 1789, but then returned to Europe where he agitated again for causes, printing materials backing Republican ideals and arguing for greater equality in Poland and Lithuania.  He was said to have contributed to the Constitution adopted May, 3, 1791 by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, considered the world's second-oldest codified national constitution after the U.S,’s own.  The commonwealth was short-lived and O. Mercy himself similarly succumbed not long after its demise.

All of this was alluded to in a letter to a great-great aunt sent from Europe just before World War II that referenced it as being documented in an autobiography that O. Mercy had printed himself before he died.  Sanz was excited.  She believed that Tony Marx’s mother had known the great-great aunt to whom the letter was sent and knew that Tony Marx’s mother volunteered Monday’s at the the NYPL’s Inwood branch library, the same neighborhood where library president Marx grew up.  That’s where she hurried immediately.  Marx’s mother knew nothing about the Revolutionary War era relation-by-marriage, but she and Sanz signed onto the NYPL’s database of materials and books from right there in the branch and discovered that O. Mercy’s book was part of the NYPL’s reference collection.  This required a bit of doing because O. Mercy’s name as author was translated and spelled out in Cyrillic.

That’s when things began not going so well.  Sanz immediately put in a request for the book.  She got an indication from the NYPL that the book was off-site and would take about four days before it could be brought to the NYPL 42nd Street library from storage at an off-site in Princeton, New Jersey location.*  Because the main Rose Reading Room is out of commission due to the need for ceiling repairs identified last May, the book was going to have to be brought to another room for her to read.  Getting no notification that the book had been retrieved Sanz inquired after nine days.
(*  It is not a surprise that the book should have been one of the ones off-site because while the library once held millions of books, over at least seven million, it presently has on site only a fraction of that number, perhaps fewer than two million in all.  The central stacks around which the library was designed, created to hold three millions books, are entirely empty.)
At this point she was informed that the book was missing from the collection.  Consulting in person with the librarians at 42nd Street it was first theorized that the O. Mercy book had been lost when, in 2008, the Slavic and Baltic division, dating back to the earliest days of the library (along with two Asian and Middle Eastern divisions), was permanently shut down.  This occurred around the time that the NYPL was launching space shrinkage plans associated with deals to sell much of its most prime real estate.  That theory of the book’s disappearance did not pan out, nor did another about the book being reshuffled around the storage facility’s space when there was a backlog of materials needing to be delivered to the 42nd Street Library due to traffic during the 2013 Super Bowl.

At this time Sanz was not yet identifying herself as a relative of the library president or invoking his help, because she was still hoping to surprise him and his wife with what she was hoping to find.  Likewise Tony Marx’s mother was sworn to secrecy.

More investigation revealed the truth.  At the storage facility, the O. Mercy volume had been designated for de-duping (i.e. elimination as an "artifactual original") because records showed the Princeton University and Columbia, sharing books with the NYPL each had a copy of the book.  This was a mistake, however: What the records of each of those institutions actually showed was that the volume in question was available for loan to their students upon request, because, in that case, the NYPL would have sent the non-circulating volume out to the universities.

In fact, the likelihood that any duplicate volume would have existed in either institution was slim to the point of virtual non-existence: O. Mercy Barkey had printed what was essentially a vanity edition of the book that was never sold, with only a few copies being handed out to certain acquaintances. . . .  That plus the fact that his ideas about liberty, equality and republicanism posed a threat to the surrounding monarchic countries that were intent on dismantling the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth so that, even with only a few copies printed, fewer copies survived.

Others surely would have given up in despair.  Sanz was determined to find a copy of the book.  She didn’t have far to go to look.  These days it seems everything shows up on eBay.  When eliminated from the library’s catalog in the name of de-duping the volume was sold in-bulk with other books to a used book seller. Finding the book on eBay did not mean that it could be obtained.  Sanz had been making inquiries about the book and there were now those in the rare book market who knew about the book's rarity and had notions of its value.  It was snatched up on eBay by a hedge fund specializing in arbitraging books of rare books that quickly outpaced Sanz’s own comparatively modest bids for it.

The hedge fund, it turned out, was one of the multitudinous subsidiary operations of the Blackstone Group headed by Stephen Schwarzman.  Stephen A. Schwarzman, for those keeping track of library matters, is a trustee of the NYPL so things were seemingly coming almost full circle in a way.  The hedge fund, commissioned the volume to Sotheby’s where the talk was that it might sell for close to $100,000 or more.

What happened?  The book came back to the library, but only because Sanz approached NYS Attorney General Eric Schneiderman who had a serious conversation with Mr. Schwarzman about the possibility of a conflict of interest on his part.  Schwarzman, irritated that the subject had even come up, said he would simply see to it that the book was donated back to the NYPL in exchange for a tax deduction that he could take so long as any legal challenge was dropped.  He also requested as one last condition that the NYPL find yet another place to affix his name to NYPL property, his name currently appearing in five places outside the 42nd Street Central Reference Library that has been named after him. . .  Needless to say, by this time the NYPL president, himself, had to be fully informed and participate in this resolution.  He did, but, by all reports, was not so happy to be doing so, notwithstanding the pending elucidation about a his wife’s famous relative from the past.

The volume, "My Life: A Tale Beginning With The Day of My Birth," (This is the translated version of the title) when Sanz got to open it, lived up to her expectations, in every way, beginning with its opening passage:
I was born in 1741 and I conceive with some definite satisfaction that the day of my birth, the first day of the month of April, gave auspicious portent to all who would strive to know the true facts of my destiny and future accomplishment.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Brilliant article and detective work. Happy ongoing sleuthing. Kudos, Noticing NY.