How to keep SA’s literary treasures in the country

The National English Literary Museum is embroiled in a lawsuit. A descendant of Samuel "Cron" Cronwright-Schreiner is claiming ownership of a collection of papers, the most important of which relate to the life and work of his first wife, Olive Schreiner.

Cron was a public-spirited man deeply invested in his wife's work. He established a scholarship in her name so that a South African woman could read for a medical degree. He donated some of her most significant papers and books to the Cradock Public Library, which passed them on to the National English Literary Museum for display at their satellite museum, Schreiner House.

Last year, the litigant placed on public auction 20 books by Schreiner, Cron and Havelock Ellis. Several were unique. The literary museum bid successfully for nine titles and spent R90 000 of its modest annual budget. An American bidder secured the two most important works: Cron's The Life of Olive Schreiner, copiously annotated and with long notes inserted, and Schreiner's Dream Life and Real Life, of which not a single copy exists in any South African library. The first sold for $10 500 and the second for $15 500.

With the legal support of the South African Heritage Resources Agency, the literary museum ensured that the books were not exported. In terms of legislation, though, the prohibition on exportation requires a South African buyer to match the sum an international bidder has offered. Fortunately, a philanthropic organisation came to the museum's rescue. Still, the collection was dispersed.

This financial success presumably inspired Cronwright-Schreiner's descendant to claim a collection of documents and texts transferred to the museum in the early 1980s. It is secondary material, not of much value except to researchers, but the museum feels compelled to contest the claim, which has meant the involvement of an attorney and senior counsel.

If public institutions are to be trusted, they have to fight to defend their holdings, but preserving our literary archives is complicated. When the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre at the University of Texas bought JM Coetzee's papers, in 2011, literary scholar Craig MacKenzie articulated the key considerations. No South African institution could afford the R12-million paid to Coetzee. The centre already has significant South African collections: the papers of Roy Campbell, Jack Cope, Stephen Gray, Uys Krige, William Plomer and Herman Charles Bosman. Coetzee is in good local company in an august institution that attracts researchers from around the world.

MacKenzie explained the history of the Bosman papers. When he died intestate, his widow was left impecunious and she put the collection up for auction. A Texas university professor happened to be in South Africa scouting for material and organised the purchase. This set the precedent. A few years later, the Lilly Library at Indiana University bought the Athol Fugard and Nadine Gordimer archives. We have, in short, sold the bulk of our literary heritage to American universities.

One cannot deny South African authors or their heirs the moral right to dispose of collections as they wish. Sadly, the gradient of wealth means they will go north. But we have also consistently undervalued our writers and artists, and should not be too quick to blame those who have recognised their importance.

Thankfully, in one respect at least, the situation is being addressed. After the literary museum petitioned and advocated for 20 years, the arts and culture department is funding the construction of a world-class literary museum and state-of-the-art conservation facility in Grahamstown. Discussions on the mandate of the new institution are under way, but there is little doubt that it will be expanded to include collecting, preserving and presenting literature in other official languages.

The literary museum has served South African scholars and the general public for more than 30 years. It will be able to do so much more effectively from its new flagship premises. Its education programme will be expanded; its staff is planning a range of exhibitions. Its holdings will be digitised and, in the spirit of open access, will be freely accessible.

But with the significant investment of public money in the new building come additional responsibilities. The museum needs resources to counter cynical profiteering, to bid for our authors' archives when they come up for sale and to extend exchanges with institutions such as the Harry Ransom Centre and the Lilly Library. Organisations, individuals and the department of arts and culture will have to work together.

In a context in which literacy should be a primary concern, this preoccupation with literary history might seem precious. But we should not foreclose on possible futures because of current anxieties. We must defend our heritage and make it accessible precisely because we cannot predict where it might lead us.

Michael Titlestad is the chair of the National English Literary Museum council and lectures in the University of the Witwatersrand's English department

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