We have just added yet another website to our viaLibri search results. The Swedish book aggregator Bokbörsen now contributes an additional 2.4 million items to the many millions of books we already search. The great majority of these books are Swedish, so if you have any Scandinavian interests this should be welcome news.
We are now posting regularly to Instagram. You will find us there as @vialibri. The main focus of our postings will be photos of unusual or graphically interesting early books and related items that have been found by visitors searching on our site. We hope to do this daily, and if we fail to keep that pace it will not be due to a lack of suitable material.
If you are not yet familiar with Instagram you may want to try visiting it now. There is already a large and active group of bibliophiles from around the world sharing interesting images there. The community of rare book librarians on Instagram is particularly active and eager to pull from their vaults many treasures that would otherwise be rarely seen. @americanantiquarian is a particular favourite of ours, but they are just one of many. The number of booksellers with interesting feeds is also impressive, although we must resist having favourites there.
viaLibri now also has a new feature created specifically for the benefit of our Instagram followers. You can now go to www.vialibri.net/instagram and find a graphic grid showing all the photos we have recently posted, with the most recent ones at the top. These photos are all linked to individual pages where the complete descriptions of the pictured items are given exactly as provided by the bookseller who offered them for sale. There is even a link for purchasing the item if it has not already been sold. A link to our photo grid is also included as part of our Instagram profile, or “bio,” page so that detailed bibliographic descriptions can be found only three clicks away from your feed.
Of course, you can also check out our most recent postings just by going to the page mentioned above. That would save you from ever having to actually go to the Instagram site itself; but then you would be missing out on all the fun.
Anyone who managed to struggle to the end of my recent post on “Searching For Books In Days Of Yore” may recall my reckless promise to continue on that topic at a later date. It was not an idle threat. So, ignoring the fact that I am probably the only person who actually finds this subject of interest, I will keep my promise and now pick up where I left off two weeks ago.
In case you hadn’t noticed, a lot of things about book searching have changed since the days I was describing in my previous post. Out of all of them, one fundamental change in particular needs to be mentioned first: before the internet came along, if you wanted a specific book that was out-of-print you almost always needed a bookseller to find it for you. There were no real options for doing it yourself. The periodicals which carried the necessary “books wanted” lists were all trade publications. Private buyers did not advertise in them. The search process was effectively closed to the retail customer. This meant that if a sought-after book was available somewhere the buyer who wanted it never actually came in contact with the dealer who had it in stock. At least two booksellers were required for every sale.
The internet made one of those booksellers superfluous.
Needless to say, this innovation did not generate enthusiasm from the booksellers who had once derived income from the inefficient system it destroyed. I have enormous sympathy for them, as I do for all the travel agents, encyclopedia salesmen, music store owners, directory publishers, newspaper delivery boys and members of any other occupations whose lives were similarly upended by the internet. The current popular term for this is “disruption.” It is a very Big Thing and has many people excited. Venture capitalists and technology entrepreneurs worship in the temple of disruption. They spend a good portion of their working day trying to cook up new ways to render useless the existing skills and practices that provide a living for the rest of us. Thus, when disruption came to the book searching business about 15 years ago there was no cheering from the trade. It is easy to understand why. For many of them it was the end of the world as they knew it.
As for myself, there is definitely a part of me that would be quite content if they called a halt to all this disruption and just let everyone go on with their business doing things as they had always done them before. I especially feel this way when I think about all my fellow booksellers who once made a living helping their customers find books in the pre-digital age. In fact, I must confess that I ran a book search service myself once upon a time. It was how I got my start in the book business, even before my wife and I opened our first shop. I did not know then that I was a dinosaur, and was happy not to know it. Things seemed just fine the way they were.
But today, for better or worse, I have to count myself among the disrupters. It would be pointless to pretend otherwise. And if I stand in that camp and consider the question of book searching I feel compelled to do it from the perspective of the buyer rather than the seller. When I do that, this is what I see:
-Before the internet, if you discovered an out-of-print book that you thought might be of interest it generally took at least a week or two just to find out if there might be a copy available somewhere for sale.
After the internet you could find this out in seconds.
– Before the internet you might learn about a book that you thought could be of interest to you, but have no idea of what it might cost you if a copy were found. The only way to find out would be to put a friendly bookseller to the expense and trouble of searching for it for you. Since there was always good chance it might cost more than you could afford or want to pay, it was likely that you would only decide to do this if it were a book you absolutely had to have it.
After the internet you could quickly check the price and availability of any book without expense, embarrassment or commercial engagement.
-Before the internet, the pool of available books to search from was limited to the available stock of those booksellers who took the time and trouble to quote from published want lists. This was only a tiny fraction of the total books available in the marketplace.
After the internet, the pool of findable books exploded as it became possible for booksellers to upload their entire inventory online and leave it there until sold. At the same time, the actual quoting of a book became unnecessary to sell it. These two things made it dramatically easier to locate a reasonable copy of a wanted book.
– Before the internet the reach of want lists rarely went beyond national or linguistic boundaries. The periodicals that carried them had limited distribution beyond the countries they were published in, and quoters rarely saw profit in mailing out quotes at international postage rates. This made searching for books published in other countries or languages especially difficult.
After the internet the marketplace became international. Metasearch sites brought books together from booksellers around the world. Customers were no longer limited to looking for foreign books primarily from the stocks of booksellers in their own country.
– Before the internet, most of the book descriptions offered to search services provided little more than a coded description of format and condition. Things like “8vo, v.g./dj.” were often all you knew about the copy you were offered to buy,
After the internet descriptions became fuller and more useful. Many copies were even illustrated with photos, and if photos were necessary and not already displayed online it was always possible to ask for them to be sent as email attachments.
Of course, the most significant change of all was in the price of books. Before the internet, common books purchased through search services were usually quite expensive relative to what they would normally sell for anywhere else.
After the internet, common books became cheap.
I could go on, but there is no need. The point is made. Disruption came to the world of book searching and the result, for the consumers at least, was a dramatic change for the better. What was once impossible became possible. What was once difficult became simple. What was once costly became cheap. And the vast availability of books online, coupled with new and powerful tools to search for them, enabled serious bibliophiles to pursue their interests in ways that were unimaginable two decades before.
Collectors, of course, already know this – the younger ones in particular. I hear it from them often. They are happy. Many of them have come to realize that they are living in a golden age. The booksellers of my generation, however, are not all convinced. I still hear many of them complaining about how heavy and shiny everything has become. I try to argue with them sometimes, but I never win.
You may have noticed that a new feature has been introduced with viaLibri’s latest update. It is something many people have asked for. Most thought it should have been included a long time ago. As in, from the beginning. I resisted for many years, but have finally capitulated. You are now able to search for books on viaLibri using ISBN.
The reason is simple. ISBN numbers are a terrible way to search for books.
I will certainly grant the fact that they serve an important purpose for the activities of publishers, distributors and new book stores. I’m sure they are useful in other contexts as well, especially for those who are only interested in new books. If you inhabit a world where data is always orderly and you like the idea that books are generic objects suitable to the algorithmic demands of data processing and purchaser profiling, then ISBN is most definitely for you. Happily, viaLibri does not yet live in that world, and I feel confident that most of its users do not want to live there either. And they do not have to. They do not need ISBN numbers, and are cordially invited to ignore them.
Because, as I said, ISBN numbers are a terrible way to search for books. You will quickly discover this the first time you attempt to search online for an out-of-print book using its ISBN number and then repeat the search the old-fashioned way using author and title. Author/title searches nearly always yield more and better results than searches based on ISBN.
The reasons for this are simple: many of the booksellers who deal in older books do not bother with ISBNs, so the listings they put on the internet do not include them. To a collector the information is meaningless, and the booksellers who focus on serving collectors generally share that attitude, even when they are also selling books to the general public.
But that is not the only reason why a second-hand book might be catalogued without its ISBN number. Often a book will have a number, but it does not actually appear inside of it. This is especially likely in the case of reprinted works that were originally published before ISBNs were firmly established. There are also many cases where the publisher didn’t obtain the ISBN until after the book was printed, or just didn’t think it was worth including as part of the text. In all of these cases the book is very likely to be catalogued without its ISBN, and if you search for it using that ISBN there will be many available copies that you will not find .
A few examples pulled from my personal reference shelf will demonstrate.
You might, for instance, want to buy a copy of BOOKBINDING IN AMERICA 1680 – 1910. FROM THE COLLECTION OF FREDERICK E. MASER, published in 1983. The ISBN number for this book is 0813910137, although it is nowhere to be found within the book itself. But if you don’t have the number already you will have no trouble finding it by looking in WorldCat or an ISBN database. If you use that number to search for your copy on viaLibri you will get 12 listings. Only two copies are available for less than $25, both of them from Amazon. However, if you try your search again, while ignoring the ISBN, and search instead for: title = “BOOKBINDING IN AMERICA MASER COLLECTION”, you will receive 39 matches, including 3 additional copies that are priced for less than $25. This is a significant difference in results.
Or, suppose you stumbled upon a reference to the 4 volume set of ARTS IN AMERICA, A BIBLIOGRAPHY, edited by Bernard Karpel and published by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1979. Suppose you could not resist the impulse to buy a set of your own. If your reference did not give you the ISBN number (0874745780) WorldCat will, as will many other online sources. It is also printed in the book. The 10 digits seem so precise and unambiguous. It is easy to think that they would be the logical way to find your copy. Please do not be fooled. If you use those numbers for your search parameter you will find only 66 matches (including many odd volumes and duplicates) and there will be no complete sets available in North America for less than $45. If, on the other hand, you try your search using author and title you will, instead, be rewarded with a total of 104 matches, including five complete sets in North America selling for $40 or less. The ISBN matches will still be there, but so will many others that would have otherwise been missed.
These are not the only good reasons for ignoring ISBNs. For me, the most compelling reason is the potential for discovery. You can’t always know whether the ISBN you are using will correspond with the best possible version of the book you are interested in. What if there is a later enlarged edition that has a new ISBN? You would not find out about the updated version if you did your searching with the ISBN of the earlier edition. The author/title search would quickly let you know.
Sometimes, when you use author and title to search for one book the results you receive will also show you another, different work by the same author that could also be of interest. With ISBNs you rarely discover anything you are not specifically looking for. With names and words you may find something unexpected that is even more interesting than the book you thought you wanted.
I would also mention the problem of typos, a problem that comes from both buyer and seller. These, of course, can happen anywhere, but they are much harder to notice and correct when it is only a string of numbers that have been mistyped.
Are there circumstances where only searching by ISBN is worthwhile? Very few.
It might sometimes be useful to check for strays after the old-fashioned author/title search had been tried. This might find a copy of a book with a typo or other cataloguing error that might otherwise be missed. Anything is possible.
Sometimes students are assigned text-books that are being continually “updated” by their publishers with new ISBNs. In this case the student will only want a copy with the correct ISBN. Used copies that are listed without this information will not be satisfactory, so searching by number would not exclude anything the searcher would want to buy.
Lastly, I have been told that there are online listings of books entered using non-Roman alphabets and that, unless you have a special keyboard, these books can only easily be found using ISBN numbers. Having never encountered such a book during my own extensive burrowing through online data I am a bit sceptical that such listings actually exist. But I do not rule it out.
It is with these special circumstances in mind that the latest change was made. I hope it will be regarded as an improvement. But I still worry that people will actually use it for a purpose it does not serve.
At least I can tell myself that you, patient reader, have been warned.
I received an email the other day from one of my favorite librarians at one of my favorite libraries. The original cause for writing is unimportant, but on a cold gray day I got a big boost out of something that was mentioned at the end.
The library in question, the Redwood Library in Newport, Rhode Island, is one of the oldest in North America. Its original collection consisted of 751 titles shipped from London in 1749, plus 126 additional early donations “by Several Gentlemen”. To modern collecting tastes these are not particularly exciting books, but that is also unimportant. They are of interest to me, however, as a demonstration of the fact that books, even run-of-the-mill reprints, are so much more vulnerable and hard to replace than the buildings that shelter and attempt to protect them; because in this case, while the library itself still stands, the collection it originally housed was stolen, destroyed or dispersed within a few decades of its original formation.
The loss, I should add, was quickly perceived. For over two centuries now the successive librarians in charge have been working hard to replace the lost volumes and recreate the collection they started with over 250 years ago. The list of missing volumes has been widely distributed and no sale list or catalogue of 18th century books arrives at the library without close scrutiny. Acquisition funds have been available. Scouts are on the hunt. Two hundred years is a long time to look for a book, and yet over 90 items (out of 877) still elude the empty shelf space that is waiting for them.
Libribot wants a shot at that list. And it is going to get it.
I am curious to see how hard to find those books are actually going to be. I’ll let you know.