A History of the Farmington Plan

By Ralph D. Wagner. Boston: Scarecrow Press, 2002. xii, 454pp. Bibliography. Index. Cloth, $69.50. ISBN 0-8108-4259-9.


Review essay published in American Archivist (Vol. 66, No.1, Spring/Summer 2003)


To the extent that archivists know anything about the Farmington Plan, it’s probably from brief exposure to it in one of their courses in library school. What they likely remember was that it was a failed attempt at early library cooperation spawned by an effort to collect “[a]t least one copy of every book published anywhere in the world following the effective date of the agreement, which might conceivably be of interest to a research worker in America.” Freelance writer Ralph Wagner's dissertation-turned-monograph provides a more nuanced and thoughtful story of the Farmington Plan from conception to closure.

The Farmington Plan takes its name from the town in Connecticut where, in the fall of 1942, an advisory committee to the Librarian of Congress met to discuss cooperation among the research library community of North America. Within six years the plan became operational – a cooperative foreign acquisitions program with assigned responsibility for various subject areas – under the aegis of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL). The list of luminaries involved in the project is both long and impressive – Princeton librarian, historian, and editor of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Julian Boyd; Harvard librarian and author of the standard text on library buildings, Keyes Metcalf; poet laureate and Librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish; American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) director and former SAA president, Waldo Gifford Leland; University of North Carolina librarian and scholar, Robert B. Downs; and a host of others. Philanthropy from the Rockefeller Foundation, ACLS, and the Carnegie Corporation, along with support from the Council on Library Resources and the American Library Association, and the sponsorship of ARL helped launch and sustain the program in its early years.

Author Wagner argues that the history of the Farmington Plan is really three histories: (1) of the 1942 proposal, (2) “of the specific foreign acquisitions programs instituted by ARL to achieve the goals” and (3) “of the term itself and the various connotations that have been attached to its since its inception.” To sketch these histories, he exhaustively examined the relevant published and archival sources, especially archival sources at Harvard, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Library of Congress, and the New York Public Library. Rather than use these sources to construct a traditional chronological narrative, Wagner opts for a social scientist’s approach, using Herrington Bryce’s text on strategic management for nonprofit organizations as his organizing framework. While imaginative in its conception, it fails to deliver more than would a standard historical treatment and leads to repetition and unnecessary length. Careful editing might have shortened the volume by a quarter without compromising the reader’s understanding of the Plan, its origins, and its outcome.

At a time when library cooperation and collaboration is seen not just as a velleity, but as a necessity in an increasingly fragmented world in which evanescent digital information can be easily copied, transmitted, corrupted or lost, does an autopsy of the Farmington Plan have relevance today? What caused the Plan's eventual discontinuation and transformation? One daunting aspect was the sheer ambitiousness of the Plan – collecting and cataloging from around the world at least one copy of any book with conceivable research value! Today, OCLC is the closest we’ve come to a world catalog, but even collectively the research libraries in North America do not have the resources to collect comprehensively. But Farmington foundered for mundane reasons as well – unreliable foreign book jobbers, the exclusion of important works in various subject areas, lack of uniform agreement about selection parameters, and the failure of research libraries to catalog acquired material in a timely manner. Behind all these lurked the nemesis of many voluntary cooperative ventures that plague the archives/library world today and that frequently drive resource allocation decisions – shifting local priorities and competition among participating institutions

It is fitting to give Wagner the last word in this review:

[T]he Farmington Plan’s failure was almost dictated by the nature of its central concern. Marginal library materials are and will remain politically marginal. They are the concern of scholars working in obscure fields, who are unlikely to unite in support of a concept of collecting the marginal. They are today’s legacy to tomorrow’s scholars, whose assessment of them may be dramatically different, but who have no voice in today’s decisions.

A good lesson for archivists and librarians alike.

Marquette University