A Treasure Trove of Accountancy’s Past

The AICPA Library forms the core of an accounting collection at the University of Mississippi unparalleled in the world.

BY PAUL BONNER
August 1, 2007

  

 

here else would you find a complete set of back issues of the journal The Management Accountant of India? Or photos of the 1907 staff baseball team of Haskins & Sells, a predecessor firm of Deloitte & Touche? Or you might want to go back to where it all started and inspect an original volume of Luca Pacioli’s Summa de Arithmetica , printed in 1494 and considered the first published description of double-entry bookkeeping.

The accounting library takes up most of the third floor of the J.D. Williams main library building on the Oxford, Miss., campus. Many of its most-­requested items, including historic exposure drafts of accounting standards, however, are as close as the nearest Internet connection. The library’s Digital Accounting Collection also features back issues of the Accounting Historians Journal and many historic pamphlets and photographs. The entire collection can be searched via the university’s online catalog, and the public can borrow most non-rare books via interlibrary loan.

You could do it all at the 126,000-volume library that the AICPA donated to the University of Mississippi in 2001. The collection forms the core of the National Library of the Accounting Profession at Ole Miss, the world’s largest accounting library.

“It’s a source of great pride for the university and the state of Mississippi,” said James W. Davis, a professor of the E.H. Patterson School of Accountancy at Ole Miss. Davis was dean of the school when the AICPA made the donation and when, a month later, 14 tractor-trailer loads began arriving from New York and New Jersey with the collection.

Upward of 5,000 large cardboard boxes held the books, pamphlets and other materials that swelled the university’s library by 10% and made its already distinguished holdings in accounting history the foremost English-language library of accountancy. “Basically, it’s everything published [on accounting] in the 20th century in English, anywhere in the world,” said Dale Flesher, a professor of accounting in the Patterson School at Ole Miss. Flesher, who also played a major role in bringing the AICPA collection to Ole Miss, frequently uses it in his historical research (see “ Eight Special Women in Accounting” accompanying this article) and displays an infectious enthusiasm for the collection’s rarities and curiosities.

“We’re always surprised at how much of the material in the collection is unique,” said Royce Kurtz, reference librarian and professor of library science at Ole Miss, who has led the effort to catalog the collection and digitize parts of it. Looking back six years over the mammoth undertaking, “I’m still amazed,” Kurtz said, even though it’s not entirely finished. “We’re down to the last 50 or 60 boxes now,” he said.

Those boxes are still yielding nuggets of accounting’s past, such as 50-year-old employee directories of major accounting firms. In a snug back room recently, Kurtz reached into one box where pamphlets awaited digital scanning. Out came a 1932 booklet, Uniform System of Accounts for Dried Fruit Cost Accounting. Digging deeper, he found the firm tax return from 1928 of Frank Broaker, holder of what is believed to be the first CPA license, issued in New York in 1896.

“There are a lot of little treasures like this in the library,” Kurtz said. A poster nearby lists the accounting library’s holdings: 35,000 books, 94,000 pamphlets, 1,300 periodical titles, 900 journal subscriptions, 191 rare books and more than 500 photographs.

A PRIORITY FROM THE START
The collection’s size attests to the priority early organizers of the AICPA and its predecessor organization, the American Association of Public Accountants, placed on building and maintaining a repository of accounting literature. Directors of the earlier organization passed a resolution in 1896 to seek headquarters space in New York City “for the purpose of acquiring a library and for general purposes.” By 1918 it had a librarian, an endowment and 2,000 books and pamphlets. The library operated as a research resource to accountants, with an emphasis on serving the smaller accounting firms, since larger firms had their own libraries. The following year, a library catalog was published and mailed free to members, the beginning of regular updates of a printed index that grew with the library’s holdings through the years. It became a computerized database starting in 1977. By 1955, when head librarian Miriam Donnelly retired (see accompanying article “ Eight Special Women in Accounting”), the four-person library staff made 9,574 book loans that fiscal year and answered nearly 19,000 inquiries assisting more than 11,500 visitors. The collection had expanded to more than 36,500 books and pamphlets.

When the AICPA moved many of its offices across the Hudson River to Jersey City, N.J., in the 1990s, much of the collection moved, too, but there was insufficient space for the entire library. Much of it went into storage in an Iron Mountain Inc. facility in Port Ewen, N.Y.

“In most special libraries, they don’t keep older materials, but we did,” said Cynthia Hiris, who was director of library services until this year. “That’s why it was so large. We understood this was the kind of material that would be needed, so we kept it, to be prepared to answer people’s questions.” What is now called the AICPA Library of Record, which preserves post-2001 AICPA-published accounting standards and other materials, was transferred to Durham, N.C., with most other AICPA operations, from Jersey City.

AICPA SEEKS A PARTNER
Through the latter half of the 1990s, the library also reflected the AICPA’s goal of making its holdings more widely available online in an “AICPA Cyber Library” and the continuing consolidation of the library’s physical operations and staffing. Although librarians used a computerized catalog, it was not available to members online. In 1999, the Institute decided to seek to donate the library’s physical holdings to a university with a prominent accounting and business program.

“We recognized our core competency was not running the library, and a lot of strong universities had that capability,” said Jay Rothberg, vice president of the office of AICPA President and CEO Barry Melancon. Rothberg worked with the trustees of the AICPA Foundation to find the strongest and most suitable collegiate partner. In August 2000, the Institute put out a request for proposal to the more than 83 member institutions of the Federation of Schools of Accountancy. The selected school would have to maintain the library collection and make it available to AICPA members, whom it could charge no more than other patrons. Also, it would have to preserve the collection’s rare books, photos and other archives according to accepted practices. Eleven universities responded with proposals, which Rothberg and the Foundation winnowed eventually to two: Ole Miss and Baruch College, part of the State University of New York system.

A comparison prepared for the AICPA Board of Directors in February 2001 noted that Baruch’s advantages included its proximity to Institute offices and use of its library by programs at Cornell and other regional universities and New York-area member firms. In Mississippi’s favor was its state-of-the-art archival facilities, whose holdings include the papers and memorabilia of writer William Faulkner. Ole Miss also houses three special accounting collections within the Patterson School of Accountancy: the McMickle Accounting History Library, the National Tax History Research Center and the National Electronic Data Processing Archival Center (see sidebar “Still More Treasures”).

 

Still More Treasures
When the AICPA Library arrived at the University of Mississippi, it complemented three one-of-a-kind collections already housed in the campus’s E.H. Patterson School of Accountancy. One of them, the National Tax History Center, contains what Flesher’s wife, Tonya Flesher, also an accounting professor at Ole Miss, says is the most complete set known of the CCH Standard Federal Tax Reporter. Other rarities are such historic tax books as an 1862 Taxpayers Manual and Emerson’s Internal Revenue Guide , published in 1867. The Patterson School also is home to the Electronic Data Processing Auditing Archival Center, which chronicles the early years of computerized auditing, and the McMickle Collection of 1,700 old and rare accounting books. Many are from the 19th century, with the oldest published in 1655.

Gibson Henry, an owner of a talent agency in Birmingham, Ala., had grown up hearing that his great-great-grandfather John Gibson had been an accountant in Philadelphia in the early 19th century who went on in the 1850s to build what was then the largest whiskey distillery in the nation. Looking online, he found Gibson’s A New and Improved System of Practical Bookkeeping in the McMickle Collection. He traveled to Oxford to examine the book, which was published in Philadelphia in 1827.

“It was a wonderful experience to hold a book that old, and written by my great-great-grandfather,” Henry said.

The three special collections do not circulate but are available to researchers visiting the Ole Miss campus upon appointment with the Patterson School.

One of Ole Miss’ primary strengths was only hinted at: Besides support from university Chancellor Robert Khayat, its proposal enjoyed “political support as well,” the summary noted. Then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi spoke at the dedication of the new collection, and Ole Miss received a $350,000 federal grant as well as private support for the effort. The university budgeted $875,000 to transport and shelve the collection and hire more catalogers. The comparison also noted that Ole Miss faculty “appears dedicated to mining off-site Iron Mountain materials for historical reference,” which describes Flesher’s enthusiasm for the project. For his part, “when Jay Rothberg called, it was one of the most exciting moments in my life,” Flesher said.

Then began the hard part, as the first tractor-trailer load pulled up on a hot August day in 2001. Many of the boxes went into a temporary warehouse space, but they also lined corridors of the Williams Library. The librarians gamely began sorting the contents.

“You can imagine, with 126,000 items dumped on them, saying, ‘Catalog these,’ when they’re used to doing six items a day,” Flesher said. Kurtz and his team also provided expert bibliographic support for the collection, Rothberg said. “What’s been nice is that Ole Miss has been able to categorize it. They’ve just got more sophistication than we were able to bring into the AICPA.”

Besides keeping accounting’s historical record, however, making it available to AICPA members without charge, in keeping with the university and Institute’s agreement, brought additional responsibilities. About 500 phone calls and e-mails a month requesting information come from as far away as Sri Lanka and Saudi Arabia.

“At first we were getting 1,000 calls per month from AICPA members, and we found that one of the things they were most wanting was old exposure drafts,” Flesher said. “People want to know what the standard was in 1979, or they want to know what was the committee thinking when they issued the exposure draft. We got such a demand for those that we asked the AICPA for copyright permission for about 320 exposure drafts, and we have digitized those. Now if someone calls in, we can just send them to the Web site.”

It seems accounting makes historians of all its practitioners, Kurtz said. “It is amazing the amount of historical material the practicing CPA needs,” he said.

Paul Bonner is a JofA senior editor. His e-mail address is pbonner@aicpa.org.

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