The sale of authors’ papers to archives has become big news, with collections from James Baldwin and Arthur Miller fetching record-breaking sums in recent years. Amy Hildreth Chen offers the history of how this multimillion dollar business developed from the mid-twentieth century onward and considers what impact authors, literary agents, curators, archivists, and others have had on this burgeoning economy.
The market for contemporary authors’ archives began when research libraries needed to cheaply provide primary sources for the swelling number of students and faculty following World War II. Demand soon grew, and while writers and their families found new opportunities to make money, so too did book dealers and literary agents with the foresight to pivot their businesses to serve living authors. Public interest surrounding celebrity writers had exploded by the late twentieth century, and as Placing Papers illustrates, even the best funded institutions were forced to contend with the facts that acquiring contemporary literary archives had become cost prohibitive and increasingly competitive.