Bob Fleck (1947 – 2016)

We learned this morning that our colleague and friend Bob Fleck passed away yesterday.  It is news whose sadness will be felt by a large number of the people that I know. In many ways he stood alone. I am quite sure that there is no one I have met who has made a greater practical contribution to the study of books in all their many aspects.  The world of bibliophiles is greatly in his debt, myself among them.

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Bob was the founder and determined force behind Oak Knoll Books, the world’s most important specialist in the broad subject generally referred to as “books on books.” He served his customers both as an expert in old and rare books and as a publisher and distributor of new ones. The publishing house he built became the first and last resort for bibliographic publications of all sorts.  There are many important titles that would never have reached a printing press without Bob’s backing and help.

There can be few serious bibliophiles or booksellers whose reference shelves do not include numerous books that have passed through Bob’s office or shop in some form or another.

But the contributions to his colleagues were far from limited to the books he sold. He was continuously giving his time to the bookselling organisations he belonged to and supported.  He served both the ABAA and the ILAB with terms as treasurer and president.  It is interesting to note that, even though his speciality was focused almost entirely on items related to the printed book, Bob also oversaw the creation of three ILAB websites. He was instrumental in establishing the first ILAB book search engine and then was later active in helping establish the current metasearch which later replaced it. That was a project we worked on together and which might not have succeeded without his insights and support.

Beyond that, he also gave early and much appreciated help to viaLibri, becoming the first of our users to try advertising on our site.  It was a very characteristic thing for him to do: looking to the future and supporting a colleague.

Bob’s accomplishments and generosity of spirit were appreciated across the full spectrum of bibliophiles, including librarians, scholars, collectors and, of course, his fellow booksellers.  I expect to see a stream of tributes over the next days and weeks.  As they are brought to my attention I will link to them here.  For now, the first tribute appears, appropriately, on the ILAB website he did so much to create and sustain.  You can read it below.

Our thoughts and deepest sympathies are now with Bob’s wife Millie and son Rob.

Bob Fleck – Book of Condolence

Book collecting conference in Cambridge this weekend. We will be there.

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This weekend (June 18-19) we will be attending a conference in Cambridge with the promising title of: Mania and Imagination: Perils and pleasures of the private collector, present and future. Odd though it may seem, I am actually excited by the idea of spending two days discussing the current and future state of book collecting.  Especially the future bit. The conversations I am most often engaged in along these lines generally trend towards irritation and despair.  Things like PODs, kindles, robopricing and the relentless decline in the value of books once thought to be rare have put a sour taste in the mouths of many who first entered the world of book collecting in the pre-digital age.  Optimism about the future of collecting books seems to be a scarce commodity among the bibliophiles of my generation.

But I’m expecting that the conference in Cambridge will reflect a more hopeful outlook. I find it hard to imagine that many participants would pay a fee and travel all the way to King’s College, for two days, just to grumble about how the current and future prospects for collectors have been ruined by the internet.

I do, I admit,  wonder what the perils referred to in the conference title might actually be referring to.  Mania?  That, of course, would be nothing new.  But perhaps it is changing its form. That could be interesting.  And there is a session devoted, simply, to Dilemmas. I am eager to learn what those might be. (I think it must be the problem of how to adjust to a world where the digitally-driven flood of collecting opportunities exceeds our capacity to evaluate or purchase them. Could it possibly be anything else?)

So I am looking forward to seeing old friends, perhaps meeting a few new ones, and having a generally stimulating weekend talking about old books.  And I will also be taking notes, which means you may hear more about this again in the future. The glorious future.

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