More Good News For eBay Fans

Regular eBay buyers (and we have learned that there are many of them) should be happy to hear that we have just expanded our coverage to include eBay sellers in Australia, Canada and Ireland.  This will bring another 3 million books to the roughly 35 million eBay titles we brought online in July when we first began searching (U.S.) and (U.K.).

Today’s expansion makes it possible to search in one place all 5 anglophone eBay sites.  We know of no place else where that can be done.  (Not to mention the other two dozen international sites we search.).

But it won’t end here. While our English-speaking customers are now fully served, we still have multiple European eBay sites that also beg to be searched. We plan to get those included as soon as possible.

And don’t forget that searching with viaLibri puts important tools and filters into your hands that are unavailable when searching on eBay itself.  For example: do you sometimes search for early items only to be annoyed by a flood of modern reprints that you must endlessly scroll through instead.    Click “No ISBNs” and “No PODs” and viaLibri will  help you cull what you don’t really want.  Or you can filter your results by the exact date range you want. Or sort by publication year. Interested only in books on Chicago from before 1872? Good luck trying that directly on eBay.

This should also be good news for viaLibri users who have recorded their permanent wants in our Wants Manager: Libribot will now also search daily for listings from the the newly added eBay sites. To take advantage you don’t have to do anything.  Your latest matches will be emailed to you automatically.

But if your desiderata have not yet been added to your Wants Manager then this would be a great time to do so.  Those 3 million new items mentioned above are now about to be matched against want lists for the very first time.

Get ’em while they’re hot.


Charges filed in Carnegie library theft

Charges were filed today in the theft of rare books at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  So far the most extensive public information about the crime and indictments has appeared int the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette under a headline reading:

Two men charged with stealing more than $8 million in rare books from Carnegie Library

Unfortunately, the Post-Gazette website is completely blocked to visitors in the European Union, making access to these latest details difficult for  anyone on this side of the Atlantic to obtain.   We have, however, been sent a PDF copy of the online version of the newspaper story and are thus able to provide it here.

PDF Version of Post-Gazette report on Carnegie Library thefts

Clicking the link above will open up a printer screen that will allow you to print the full story (14 pages).  Click Cancel if you prefer to display a scrollable version of the same story.

Now We Have Amendments to the EU Cultural Goods Regulations. Manuscript Buyers Take Heed.

Back in March I posted here a series of blog posts concerning  proposed EU regulations for the importation of “cultural goods.”  The official objective of these regulations was to combat the looting and destruction of important cultural sites  and to prevent the financing of  terrorism through the trafficking of stolen cultural goods and artefacts.  Early books and manuscripts were included among the objects that were targeted by these new rules even though no one I have heard from has yet seen evidence of terrorist finance activity in the rare book market.  

Needless to say, there was a great deal of concern in the antiquarian book market once the details of the proposed regulations became known and understood.   The alarm, however, was somewhat relieved by the fact that the next stage in the process would allow for amendments to the initial proposal and that there was acknowledgement among at least some of the people involved that major changes needed to be made.

Well, changes are, indeed, afoot, but whether they improve or worsen the situation probably depends on the age and value of the objects you are interested in and whether they are most often books or manuscripts. For booklovers the extent of the burdens may, indeed, be a bit reduced.  But for those who collect early manuscripts (and in some cases not so early) it looks like things will become even worse than originally proposed.

The deadline for making amendments has now passed.  There are at least 381 of them, and I must confess to having skipped over a few. From our perspective, however, the most crucial amendments relate to the ANNEX at the end of the proposal.  This is where they list all the various categories of cultural goods and define which items will be subject to import controls and which ones will not.  There are nine separate proposed amendments, each with a different comprehensive set of rules.  The major change being introduced now is the addition of valuation thresholds,  although a variety of changes to the original age threshold of 250 years are also included.

The different amendments appear to be the work of the different political parties represented on the committee. All but one of them  are proposed by only one, two or three MPs.  For example, Amendment 413, sponsored by the 3 MPs from the European Peoples Party, adds a  €50,000 minimum value threshold for most of the categories, including “old books, documents and publications of special interest ” that are more than 250 years old. This provides some relief for bibliophiles.  However, this amendment leaves unchanged the original proposal as it regards incunabula and manuscripts over 250 years old .

But those amendments are probably all irrelevant.  It is Amendment #408, offered by 6 members of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, which seems most likely, if any, to pass.  This amendment makes several significant changes.  With respect to books, the age threshold is reduced dramatically. Where the original proposal exempted books less than 250 years old, this amendment would reduce the age threshold to only 100 years.  On the other hand, relief is offered by the introduction of a price threshold of €50,000 euros. Whether these two changes would raise or lower the number of books that would be covered is hard to say.  Incunabula, which presumably includes incunable leaves, are still treated separately and will have no price threshold.

The greatest impact, however, will be on manuscripts.  Previously only manuscripts over 250 years old were covered. Amendment #408 would reduce this to 50 years;  and there is no compensating price threshold set.  Any 51 year-old hand-written document would be subject to these rules regardless of value.  There is an exception made for manuscripts belonging to their creators, but this is likely to be a very limited case.

It is extremely hard for me to find any sense here.  The fear that terrorists are financing their activities through the looting and trafficking of old letters and hand-written documents seems obviously groundless. I cannot swear that such a thing has never happened and never will, but the extreme improbability of it balanced against the enormous amount of effort and expense involved in controlling it by these methods makes a complete travesty out of any claim that the authors of the regulations had any real concern for the proportionality that their regulations are supposed to  respect. Much more could be said on this, but it seems unnecessary.

Another serious problem is created by an idea that appears for the first time in the amendments: minimum value thresholds.  These are designed to significantly reduce the number of objects that are covered and thus limit the administrative burden placed on the importers and agencies involved.  At first glance this idea makes sense and seems like an improvement over the original regulations, which were to be applied regardless of value.  However, nothing is said here about how the these valuation thresholds will, in practice, be implemented.  I can imagine only two possibilities.

The first possibility is that the importer would be required to submit an appraisal to prove that his goods fell below the minimum value threshold and were thus exempt from control. As far as I can see, there is no other requirement for a current appraisal as part of the import process.  As a result, what we have here is the rather odd consequence that only the goods that are not subject to regulation will have to submit to the expense and delay of competent appraisal.  And this assumes that the individual who wants to import something will have access to or know how to find someone with the necessary expertise.

The only alternative I can think of would be to have the importer simply declare a value himself,  with or without the needed expertise.  But of what use is that?  If there are, in fact, terrorist manuscript dealers who are hoping to traffic their booty in the EU then I think they will be unlikely to declare the value of their goods to be in excess of the crucial threshold.  In this context self-assessment is meaningless. Only the honest and innocent will be burdened by the rules.

As mentioned, there are 9 different amendments, each with its own age and value threshold.  Some are worse than others. For example, Amendment 416 (drafted by MEPs from the Greens/European Free Alliance) does nothing except to change all the age thresholds from 250 years to 75 years.  From my perspective Amendment 414 seems the least unreasonable, setting a minimum value threshold of €50,000 for books created before 1700 and  for “rare manuscripts and incunabula before 1500 (sic).”  But the lack of a reasonable and effective method for implementing the minimum value threshold is still a fatal flaw.

There is, however, one additional amendment (#417) that does seem reasonable and in more sensible alignment with the professed purpose of the proposed rules.  Daniel Dalton, an MP from the UK, has proposed a second Annex which reads,  simply,  “List of Countries at Risk.”  No details are provided with the Amendment text found on the European Commission site, but one can easily imagine what this might entail.  There already exist restrictions for cultural goods imported from Iraq and Syria.  Import regulation for those countries, and any others under similar terrorist threat,  do make some sense. Whether on not this amendment can, in fact, accomplish that is not clear.  Hopefully it is not too late in the process.  As for the other amendments, I think they fall well short of correcting the deeply flawed regulations they attempted to repair.



Poll on proposed EU import rules for books and other cultural goods

We have just added to the viaLibri blog an online poll on a question that should be of interest to all our users. It gives them an opportunity to record their opinions regarding European Union regulations, newly proposed, to control the importation of cultural goods, especially early books, manuscripts and prints.

We have also included on the polling page a number of links to documents and articles explaining the issues involved in this important piece of legislation. After you have cast your vote you will have an opportunity to leave your own comments and respond to the comments of others.

If you believe that these issues are important, as we do, then please share our links with your friends and any others who care about  protecting the unrestricted international exchange of early books, manuscripts and prints.

New EU Anti-Terror Import Regulations Will Target Bibliophiles

If proposed new European Union regulations are approved, European book collectors and dealers may be in for an annoying surprise when they make their first imported purchases in 2019. Starting next year they may become subject to new import regulations that will significantly complicate the process of buying old books, prints and manuscripts from sources outside the EU.  The  purpose of the changes is to combat the looting and smuggling of antiquities and prevent the financing of terrorism through the illicit trade in cultural goods.  While the need for the new regulations is presented almost entirely in relation to the war on terror, the sweeping new rules themselves will be applied comprehensively and include no provisions for exempting goods from areas which are free from armed conflict or terrorist activities.

The new regulations apply to a broad range of cultural goods, but none will be impacted more adversely than books.  The new procedures are as follows:

If a book, engraving, print, document or publication of “special interest” that is more than 250 years old is presented for import in any EU member state the owner or “holder of the goods” will be required to submit a signed importer statement to customs authorities in the country of entry. The statement must include a declaration that the books have been originally exported legally from their source country. However, in cases where the export country (distinct from the source country) is a “Contracting Party to the UNESCO Convention on Cultural Property” then the holder of the books must  provide a declaration that they have been exported from that export country in accordance with its laws and regulations. Needless to say, while the proposal specifies books and documents of “special interest” it does not give any more explicit criteria for defining what this means and the notion of “special interest,” on its own, is sufficiently vague and subjective to include, in practice, virtually any book that someone might want to import.

Register your opinion on the proposed regulations

More strenuous requirements apply to incunabula and manuscripts that are more than 250 years old. In this case an import license must be applied for and documentation must be supplied to substantiate that the cultural goods in question have been exported from the source country in accordance with its laws and regulations.  When the goods in question are being exported from someplace other than the source country, and the exporting country is a signatory of the UNESCO convention, then the application needs to be accompanied by documents and information substantiating that the cultural goods have been exported legally.  The application must be presented to a “competent authority” (presumably a customs office) which will have 90 days to examine the application and accept or reject it.  The application can be rejected if the applicant is not able to demonstrate that the goods were exported from the source country “in accordance with its laws and regulations.” In the case where the goods are being exported from a country that is a UNESCO Convention signatory, then the application may be rejected if the goods were not exported in accordance with that country’s laws and regulations.  It is tedious to spell them all out, but those are the new rules and we may all need to understand them  very soon.

The regulations are broad in scope and apply to numerous categories of cultural goods besides books, prints and manuscripts. There are exemptions for items less than 250 years old and special provisions for transit and temporary exhibition. Items from all source countries are included and imports from all non-EU countries must be cleared.  There are no value thresholds similar to those generally applied to the export of cultural objects, such as found in  EU Regulation 116/2009.  No distinction is made between commercial and personal property.  There is nothing to indicate that EU citizens may bring their own personal goods into the EU from outside of it without going through the import procedures.  Thus, there is nothing to assure an EU resident who leaves the Union with personal cultural goods in January that he will will be able to return with those goods in February without being subject to import regulations.

All of which might be made to seem like just another of those common annoyances that have become part of post 9/11 life if there was some prospect that it might actual help in the fight against terrorism.  But I doubt that will happen, at least as far as books and manuscripts are concerned.  I don’t doubt that the part of the regulations that target archaeological artefacts, sculptures and artwork could have some impact in reducing the lucrative illicit demand for these objects, for which there is a significant European market.  But books, prints and manuscripts are an altogether different story. The books that have been looted or ransacked by terrorists from libraries in the Middle East were generally of a religious nature and written in Semitic languages, such as Arabic and Aramaic.  The primary market for these books is from Islamic and Middle Eastern buyers who can read the texts and have a cultural connection to them.  If these books are being looted in order to sell them then this is the market that encourages their theft. Obstructing export channels to legitimate european buyers will do nothing to reduce the illicit market that will continue to thrive elsewhere.  The overwhelmingly Western books that will enter the EU subject to these new rules will be irrelevant to the illicit market that finances terrorism.

With respect to books, the controls which have been defined depend on the ability of owners/importers (“holders of goods’) to prove or declare that the imported goods were legally exported from the country in which they were created.  This requirement will be particularly problematic for book and print sellers. Free trade in books has existed since before the invention of printing and the legal undocumented exportation of books has historically been standard practice in all but exceptional cases. Early export documents for books do not exist.  Thus, an individual who seeks to import a pre-1768 book into the EU will either be required to make a signed declaration about facts he is unable to know, or, in the case of incunables, to provide supporting documentation and information it would be impossible to have. Books are inherently portable and created with the anticipation that they will be widely distributed to various parts of the world.  The circumstances under which an individual 18th century book may have been exported from the country it was printed in is almost certain to be unknown. One may assume that its first exportation was legal, but the possibility of smuggling or theft can almost never be absolutely ruled out.  In nearly all cases, a signed declaration affirming that such a book was exported from its source country “in accordance with its laws and regulations” could only be made fraudulently.  

Another remarkable omission is the lack of any exception for the situation where the source country is the same as the country into which the book is being imported. Thus, a German collector wanting to purchase a German incunable from an American bookseller would be required to obtain an import licence and produce “supporting documents and information substantiating” that the incunable had been exported in accordance with German laws and regulations. Even if it is only a €50 topographical print of Munich, the buyer will be required to submit an importer statement with a description of the item and a signed declaration regarding the legality of its initial export from Germany.

Of even greater concern is the fact that the powers created for this new import authority are not just limited to the simple denial of the right to import. Although the implementation details for this are not spelled out in the actual regulation as proposed, the press release issued by the European Commission states clearly that “Customs authorities will also have the power to seize and retain goods [their emphasis] when it cannot be demonstrated that the cultural goods in question have been legally exported.” Thus, seizure will be authorised not just when illegality can be proven, but also when the absence of illegality cannot be proven. I do not think I need to spell out the implications of this newly granted authority.

The sweeping scope of the categories of goods targeted by these regulations is also puzzling, if not disturbing.  They force me to wonder whether the legitimate goal of fighting terrorism hasn’t now been inflated into a general challenge to the entire marketplace for cultural goods of all types. Apart from books and manuscripts, the list of protected categories includes:

  • “sound, photographic and cinematographic archives”,
  • “postage, revenue and similar stamps,”  
  • “original artistic assemblages and montages in any material,”
  • “specimens of fauna, flora, minerals and anatomy.”
  • “objects of ethnological interest,”
  • “objects relating to history, including the history of science and technology and military and social history, to the life of national leaders, thinkers, scientists and artists and to events of national importance,”

Fortunately, for now at least, items less than 250 years old, regardless of category, are exempt. Given that threshold, one has to wonder why the first two categories above have been included at all.  Indeed, given the repeated anti-terrorist justifications for these regulations, one wonders why it was found necessary to include any of the categories listed above. It is hard to dismiss the suspicion that the fight against terrorism, which enjoys broad popular support, is here nothing more than a pretext for the EU to put in place a system of import controls for all cultural goods, regardless of threat, price or origin. Once that framework is securely in place we should not be surprised to see the 250 year thresholds periodically reduced, if not eliminated altogether.  

The 24 page Explanatory Memorandum issued by the European Commission expresses little or no concern for the burdensome impact these regulations will place on the rights of its citizens to purchase and receive cultural goods, such as books and manuscripts, from sources outside the EU. The proposal skips lightly over the extent to which these rules will impede legitimate trade, and ignores entirely the obstacles they will place in the way of individuals who, for example, build rare book collections or engage in historical research.  To my mind at least, these are important activities that support the cultural interests of everyone and should be protected rather than challenged. Surprisingly then, the Memorandum reveals no effort to measure these activities or evaluate how they will be affected by the rules that are to be imposed.  Admittedly, the market for old books is complicated and widely dispersed.  No accurate statistics about its size have been published.  The question of how many books and manuscripts in the open marketplace will be subject to the proposed regulations is ignored.  Although exact numbers are not available, an examination of viaLibri search records tells me that the number of pre-1768 books, manuscripts and prints for sale on the internet must exceed 400,000 items, and is probably even higher than that. It is impossible to know how many of these are sold each year, but I would not be surprised if the number fell safely into six figures. And they would not all be very expensive, as a few test searches on viaLibri would show.  The majority appear to be under $300, and there are even a few that are priced at less than the cost of shipping them internationally.  

The memorandum reports that, during a 3 month assessment process begun  in October 2016, 305 “contributions” were received from “stakeholders,” including “citizens, enterprises, professional associations and interests representatives, NGOs and civil society, [and] public authorities.” It is unclear, however, how many individual contributors are included in that number and who those contributors were.  The International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, we know, was not among them.  Thus, the single largest, oldest and most important professional association in the field of early books and manuscripts was not involved in the assessment process . An omission as serious as that cannot give anyone much confidence in the product of those deliberations.  Fortunately, these regulations have not yet been voted into law and there is still time to save ourselves from them. The ILAB has now sent a letter of concern to the individual members of the European Parliament who appear to have authority on this proposed legislation. These are:

– Daniel Dalton (UK)

– Alessia Maria MOSCA (IT)

– Santiago FISAS AYXELÀ (ES)


If you also have concerns about this legislation you may want to write to them yourself. I know I intend to.

[version française]

More on this subject:

Les Nouvelles Réglementations à l’importation de l’UE pour contrer le terrorisme vont viser les bibliophiles

(I want to thank Nevine and Philippe Marchiset
for this French version of our recent blog post regarding proposed EU import regulations.)

Si une nouvelle proposition de Règlement du 13 juillet 2017 était approuvée, les collectionneurs et libraires européens pourraient avoir une fâcheuse surprise lorsqu’ils effectueront leurs premiers achats à l’importation en 2019. À partir de l’année prochaine, ils pourront être soumis à de nouvelles règles d’importation qui compliqueront considérablement le processus d’achat de livres anciens, de gravures et de manuscrits provenant de sources extérieures à l’UE. Le but de ces règles serait de lutter contre le pillage et la contrebande d’objets de fouilles et d’empêcher le financement du terrorisme par le commerce illicite de biens culturels. Bien que cette proposition soit presque entièrement présentée comme étant liée au combat contre le terrorisme, les nouvelles règles seront appliquées de manière globale et ne comprendront aucune disposition prévoyant l’exemption des biens des zones libres de conflit armé ou d’activités terroristes. 

Les nouvelles règles doivent s’appliquer à un grand éventail de biens culturels, mais aucun ne sera autant impacté que les livres. Deux types de procédures existent dans la proposition :

  • Si un livre, une gravure ou une estampe d’un « intérêt spécial » de plus de 250 ans est présenté à l’importation dans n’importe quel État membre de l’UE, le propriétaire ou le « détenteur des biens » devra présenter une déclaration d’importation signée aux autorités douanières du pays d’entrée. La déclaration devra inclure une déclaration que les livres ont initialement été légalement exportés de leur pays source. Toutefois, dans les cas où le pays d’exportation (distinct du pays source) est une « Partie contractante de la Convention de l’UNESCO » sur les biens culturels, le détenteur devra fournir une déclaration attestant que les livres ont été exportés de ce pays, conformément à la législation et à la réglementation de ce dernier. Bien que la proposition de règlement mentionne les livres et documents d’un « intérêt spécial », elle n’en  fournit aucun critère de définition, et la notion d’ « intérêt spécial » est suffisamment vague et subjective pour pouvoir inclure, en pratique, n’importe quel livre importé.
  • Des exigences plus sévères s’appliquent aux incunables et aux manuscrits de plus de 250 ans. Dans ce cas, une licence d’importation doit être demandée et une documentation doit être fournie pour prouver que les biens culturels en question ont été exportés du pays source conformément à ses lois et règlements. Lorsque les marchandises en question sont exportées d’un pays autre que le pays d’origine et que le pays exportateur est signataire de la convention de l’UNESCO, alors la demande doit être accompagnée de documents et d’informations attestant que les biens culturels ont été exportés légalement conformément à la législation et à la réglementation de ce dernier. La demande doit être présentée à une «autorité compétente» (vraisemblablement un bureau de douane) qui disposera de 90 jours pour examiner la demande et l’accepter ou la rejeter. La demande pourra être rejetée si le demandeur n’est pas en mesure de démontrer que les marchandises ont été exportées du pays source « conformément à ses lois et règlements ». Dans le cas où les marchandises sont exportées d’un pays signataire de la Convention de l’UNESCO, alors la demande pourra être rejetée si les marchandises n’ont pas été exportées conformément aux lois et règlements du pays d’exportation.

Il est fastidieux de faire l’inventaire de ces règles, mais, pour nouvelles qu’elles soient, les personnes concernées (libraires, bibliophiles, voire même le grand public) devront les assimiler rapidement.

La proposition a une portée large et s’applique à de nombreuses catégories de biens culturels en plus des livres, des estampes et des manuscrits. Il existe de minces exemptions pour les biens de moins de 250 ans, de même que des dispositions spéciales pour le transit et l’exposition temporaire. Les marchandises de tous les pays source sont inclues et les importations en provenance de tous les pays non membres de l’UE devront passer par ce processus. Il n’y a pas de seuils de valeur similaires à ceux généralement appliqués à l’exportation d’objets culturels (cf. Règlement de l’UE 116/2009). Aucune distinction n’est faite entre les biens commerciaux et personnels. Rien n’indique que les citoyens de l’UE puissent importer leurs biens personnels dans l’UE sans passer par les procédures d’importation décrites. Ainsi, rien n’indique que le citoyen européen qui quittera l’Union en janvier avec des biens culturels personnels pourra revenir avec ces biens en février sans être soumis à la procédure d’importation.

Tout cela pourrait s’apparenter à un énième tracas parmi ceux qui ont vu le jour dans la foulée du 11 septembre, si seulement ce texte disposait d’une quelconque utilité dans la lutte contre le terrorisme. Il est douteux que cela se produise, du moins en ce qui concerne les livres et les manuscrits. Peut-être que les aspects réglementaires visant les objets archéologiques, les sculptures et les œuvres d’art antiques pourraient avoir un impact sur la diminution de la demande illicite et lucrative de ces objets, pour lesquels il existe un marché européen important. Toutefois, les livres, les gravures et les manuscrits sont tout à fait différents. Les livres qui ont été pillés ou saccagés par les terroristes des bibliothèques du Moyen-Orient étaient généralement de nature religieuse et écrits dans des langues sémitiques, telles que l’arabe et l’araméen. Le principal marché pour ces livres se trouve auprès d’acheteurs musulmans ou orientaux  qui peuvent lire les textes et avoir un lien culturel avec eux. Si ces livres sont pillés afin de les vendre, alors c’est ce marché qui encourage leur vol. La fermeture des canaux d’exportation aux acheteurs légitimes de l’UE n’aura aucun impact sur ce marché illicite qui continuera de prospérer ailleurs. La très grande majorité des livres occidentaux soumis à ces nouvelles règles qui entreront dans l’UE n’aura pas de lien avec le marché illicite qui finance le terrorisme.

  En ce qui concerne les livres, les contrôles qui ont été définis dépendent de la capacité des propriétaires/importateurs («détenteurs de biens») de prouver ou de déclarer que les marchandises importées ont été légalement exportées du pays dans lequel elles ont été créées. Cette exigence sera particulièrement problématique pour les marchands de livres et de gravures. Le libre-échange de livres existe préalablement à l’invention de l’imprimerie et l’exportation légale de livres sans documents administratifs a toujours été une pratique courante, sauf dans des cas exceptionnels. Les documents anciens d’exportation de livres n’existent pas. Ainsi, une personne qui cherche à importer un livre antérieur à 1768 dans l’UE sera soit obligée de faire une déclaration signée sur des faits qu’elle est incapable de connaître, soit, dans le cas des incunables, de fournir des documents et des informations à l’appui qu’il lui sera impossible d’obtenir. Les livres sont des objets intrinsèquement portatifs et créés dans l’espoir qu’ils seront largement distribués dans diverses parties du monde. Les circonstances selon lesquelles un livre individuel du XVIIIe siècle a pu être exporté du pays dans lequel il a été imprimé sont presque certainement inconnues. On peut supposer que la première exportation fut légale, mais la possibilité de contrebande ou de vol ne peut jamais être complètement exclue. Dans la plupart des cas, une déclaration signée affirmant qu’un tel livre a été exporté de son pays d’origine “conformément à sa législation et à sa réglementation” ne peut être que frauduleuse.

Une autre omission remarquable est l’absence d’exception lorsque le pays source et le pays d’importation est le même. Ainsi, un collectionneur allemand désireux d’acheter un incunable allemand auprès d’un libraire américain serait tenu d’obtenir une licence d’importation et de produire des « pièces justificatives et des informations attestant » que l’incunable avait été exporté conformément aux lois et règlements allemands. Même s’il ne s’agit que d’une gravure topographique de Munich d’une valeur de 50 €, l’acheteur devra soumettre une déclaration d’importateur avec une description de l’article et une déclaration signée concernant la légalité de son exportation initiale d’Allemagne.

Plus préoccupant encore est le fait que les pouvoirs dont cette nouvelle autorité d’importation sera investie ne se limitent pas au simple déni du droit d’importer. Bien que les modalités de mise en œuvre ne sont pas précisées dans le règlement tel qu’il est proposé, le communiqué de presse de la Commission européenne indique clairement que « les autorités douanières seront également habilitées à saisir et à conserver des biens (le gras est dans le texte) lorsqu’il n’aura pas pu être démontré que les biens culturels en cause ont été exportés légalement ». Ainsi, la saisie sera autorisée non seulement lorsque l’illégalité peut être prouvée, mais aussi lorsque l’absence d’illégalité ne peut pas être prouvée. Je ne pense pas avoir besoin d’énoncer les conséquences de ce nouveau pouvoir.

Le champ d’application étendu des catégories de biens visés par ces règlements est déroutant, voire dérangeant. Je ne peux que me demander si l’objectif légitime de la lutte contre le terrorisme ne s’est pas transformé en un défi général lancé à l’ensemble du marché pour les biens culturels de tous types. En dehors des livres et des manuscrits, la liste des catégories protégées comprend:

  • «  archives, y compris les archives phonographiques, photographiques et cinématographiques»,
  • « timbres-poste, timbres fiscaux et analogues, isolés ou en collection;»
  • « assemblages et montages artistiques originaux, en toutes matières »
  • « Collections et spécimens rares de zoologie, de botanique, de minéralogie et d’anatomie, et objets présentant un intérêt paléontologique»
  • «objets d’intérêt ethnologique »
  • « objets concernant l’histoire, y compris l’histoire des sciences et des techniques, l’histoire militaire et sociale ainsi que la vie des dirigeants, penseurs, scientifiques et artistes nationaux, et les événements d’importance nationale. »

Heureusement, pour l’instant au moins, les marchandises de moins de 250 ans, quelle que soit leur catégorie, sont exemptés. Compte tenu de ce seuil, on peut se demander pourquoi les deux premières catégories ont été incluses. En effet, compte tenu des justifications antiterroristes répétées dans ces règlements, on se demande pourquoi il a été jugé nécessaire d’inclure n’importe laquelle des catégories énumérées ci-dessus. Il est difficile d’éviter de penser que la lutte contre le terrorisme, qui bénéficie d’un large soutien populaire, n’est ici qu’un prétexte pour mettre en place un système de contrôle des importations de tous les biens culturels, indépendamment de la menace, du prix ou de l’origine. Une fois ce cadre bien en place, nous ne devrions pas être surpris de voir les seuils de 250 ans périodiquement réduits, voire éliminés.

Le mémorandum explicatif de 24 pages publié par la Commission européenne exprime peu ou pas d’inquiétude quant à l’impact pesant que ces réglementations auront sur les droits de ses citoyens d’acheter et de recevoir des biens culturels, tels que des livres et des manuscrits, en provenance de l’extérieur de l’UE. La proposition ne tient quasiment pas compte de l’étendue des entraves que ces règles imposeront au commerce légitime et ignore complètement les obstacles qu’elles mettront sur le chemin de particuliers qui tentent, par exemple, de constituer des collections de livres anciens ou se livrent à des recherches historiques. Pour moi tout au moins, ce sont des activités importantes qui soutiennent les intérêts culturels de chacun et devraient être protégées plutôt que défiées. Da manière étonnante donc, le mémorandum ne révèle aucune tentative de mesure de ces activités ou d’évaluation comment elles seront affectées par les règles qui vont être imposées. Certes, le marché des livres anciens est compliqué et largement dispersé. Aucune statistique précise sur sa taille n’a été publiée. La question de savoir quelle quantité de livres et de manuscrits sur le marché libre seront assujettis au règlement proposé est ignorée. Bien que les nombres exacts ne soient pas disponibles, un examen des listes de recherches effectuées sur viaLibri indique que le nombre de livres, manuscrits et gravures antérieurs à 1768 en vente sur Internet doit dépasser les 400 000, avec une quantité sans doute plus élevée. Il est impossible de savoir combien d’entre eux sont vendus chaque année, mais sans doute s’agit-il d’un nombre à six chiffres au moins. Et la majorité d’entre eux ont une valeur inférieure à 300 $;  il en existe même quelques-uns dont le prix de vente est inférieur au coût de leur expédition internationale.

 Le mémorandum prétend que, durant un processus d’évaluation de trois mois ayant commencé en octobre 2016, 305 «contributions» ont été reçues de « parties intéressées », y compris « les citoyens, les entreprises, les associations professionnelles, les représentants de groupes d’intérêts, les ONG, la société civile et les autorités publiques ». Cependant, on ignore combien de contributeurs individuels sont inclus dans ce nombre, ni quelle est leur identité. La Ligue Internationale de la Librairie Ancienne, nous le savons, n’était pas parmi eux. Ainsi, l’association professionnelle la plus importante, la plus ancienne et la plus représentative dans le domaine des livres anciens et des manuscrits n’a pas participé au processus d’évaluation. Une omission aussi grave ne peut donner confiance au résultat de ces délibérations. Heureusement, cette proposition n’a pas encore été adoptée et il est encore temps de s’en préserver. La LILA a depuis envoyé une lettre exprimant ses inquiétudes aux membres individuels du Parlement Européen qui semblent avoir une quelconque autorité sur cette proposition de loi. Il s’agit de :

– Daniel DALTON (UK)

– Alessia Maria MOSCA (IT)

– Santiago FISAS AYXELÀ (ES)


Si ce projet vous inquiète, vous pourrez vouloir leur écrire. Je compte le faire.


Continuation 9/3/2018:

QUELQUES REFLÉXIONS SUPPLÉMENTAIRES sur les nouvelles règles d’importation de l’UE

Je suis encore estomaqué par l’audace dont font preuve les règles d’importation proposées par l’UE. Y a-t-il jamais eu une situation comparable où les fonctionnaires administratifs d’un pays sont autorisés à saisir des biens en raison de la compréhension qu’ils auraient des lois d’un autre pays?

Ou de plus de 100 pays?

Avec des dizaines de langues différentes?

Sur plusieurs siècles?


Continuation 12/3/2018:

Des nouvelles règles pour l’importation des livres anciens et des manuscrits dans l’UE – ce ne sera pas UNE PARTIE DE PLAISIR

Dans mon précédent article sur le règlement d’importation proposés par l’UE, j’ai omis d’ajouter une description détaillée de l’épreuve que vous devrez subir lors de l’importation de biens culturels. C’est la principale préoccupation de la plupart des libraires qui m’en ont parlé. Et avec raison. D’après ce que j’ai lu jusqu’à présent, et bien que les détails ne soient pas encore complètement disponibles, il semble probable que, pour certains d’entre eux tout au moins, des tranquillisants seront nécessaires.

Après avoir à présent lu plusieurs fois la documentation disponible, voici ce que j’en comprends :

Pour les importations nécessitant une licence d’importation (incunables et “manuscrits rares” de plus de 250 ans), le “détenteur de biens” doit demander une licence d’importation auprès d’une “autorité compétente”. Le “détenteur de biens” est défini comme “la personne qui est le propriétaire des marchandises” ou qui a un “droit de disposition” similaire sur eux ou qui en a le “contrôle physique”. L’autorité compétente, bien que non définie, sera généralement un bureau de douane doté d’une compétence spécifique, avec un personnel formé à l’évaluation des biens culturels. Ni ces douanes ni ce personnel n’existent encore.

Dans des cas simples, cette demande de licence sera soumise au bureau de douane compétent accompagnée de documents prouvant que les marchandises ont été exportées légalement. L’autorité compétente disposera alors de 30 jours pour examiner la demande et requérir toute information ou documentation supplémentaire dont elle estimera avoir besoin. Une fois la demande considérée comme complète, l’autorité compétente disposera de 90 jours supplémentaires pour l’accepter ou la rejeter. Lorsque la demande sera acceptée, une licence d’importation sera émise. Les marchandises ne pourront être importées avant la présentation de la licence d’exportation. Étant donné que des dispositions sont prises pour la saisie des marchandises qui entrent dans l’UE sans licence requise, je suppose que les marchandises ne devront pas quitter le pays d’exportation avant que la licence d’exportation ne soit délivrée.

La demande devra être faite par le «détenteur de biens», ce qui signifie soit la propriété soit la possession physique. Donc, si vous êtes un résident de l’UE et que vous voulez acheter un manuscrit ancien ou un incunable auprès d’un vendeur américain, vous devrez d’abord payer votre livre, le laisser aux États-Unis, demander une licence et attendre que la licence soit émise. Alors seulement l’article vous sera expédié. Il devra être envoyé au bureau de douane compétent où il sera examiné pour s’assurer que la marchandise reçue correspond à l’article décrit dans la licence. C’est seulement à ce moment là que vous serez autorisé à recevoir votre achat.

Je devrais noter que l’article 7 fait référence à la restriction du nombre de bureaux de douane qui seront compétents pour autoriser l’entrée dans l’UE des biens culturels. Cela sous-entend que vous ferez face à des difficultés inévitables si vous vivez dans un endroit qui est loin du bureau de douane compétent. Si vous êtes comme moi, vous serez peu enclin à vouloir qu’un précieux incunable ou un manuscrit envoyé à un bureau de douane éloigné pour y être examiné vous soit renvoyé par la poste. Il n’est fait aucune mention des frais et des risques afférents à une telle expédition.

La situation est un peu plus simple pour les livres (ou imprimés) qui ne sont pas des incunables. Il s’agit d’une catégorie distincte qui nécessite une déclaration de l’importateur au lieu d’une licence d’importation. Mais les problèmes sont similaires. La déclaration devra également être présentée à un bureau de douane «compétent» qui examinera physiquement le livre pour déterminer s’il correspond à la déclaration que vous avez fournie. Il pourra également décider de conduire une «expertise», ce qui impliquera vraisemblablement un retard supplémentaire. Encore une fois, on ne sait pas très bien ce que les règlements prévoient dans le cas où vous vivez à une certaine distance du bureau de douane compétent. Est-ce que le livre sera envoyé directement aux douanes et y sera conservé jusqu’à ce que votre déclaration soit reçue et votre livre examiné ? Après cela, aurez-vous besoin de vous rendre personnellement au bureau de douane pour récupérer votre propriété, ou vous sera-t-elle envoyée par la poste ?

Aucun de ces problèmes n’est abordé de manière significative dans aucun des documents que j’ai lus, ce qui m’amène à penser que les personnes à l’origine de toute cette proposition de règlement n’ont pas encore trouvé de solution pratique. Je sais que les solutions actuellement proposées ne sont pas acceptables pour moi.

Ou est-il possible que le règlement suppose simplement que ces mesures soient toutes prises en main par des courtiers en douane, et ils auraient juste oublié de le mentionner ? Si tel est le cas, la situation est pire que nous l’imaginons.



Algorithmic book pricing and its implications

John Henry said to the captain,
“A man ain’t nothin’ but a man,
But before I let your algo beat me down,
I’ll die with a pencil in my hand
Lord, Lord
I’ll die with a pencil in my hand.”

Back in September the issue of algorithmic pricing surfaced in one of the ABA (Antiquarian Booksellers Association) email Bulletins. It came in response to a letter sent by a member to myself and the ABA office seeking an explanation for a strange phenomenon he had recently observed: out-of-print text books on sites like Amazon and AbeBooks were being listed at absurd prices, in some cases reaching into six figures.  He wondered if this might possibly be evidence of a new scam devised to fleece careless librarians who used automated ordering systems and may not be noticing the prices that they pay.  I suggested, instead, that the most likely explanation was that software, rather than human intelligence, was being used to price the books.

Shortly thereafter  the ABA newsletter editors, ever conscious of the need to fill pages, asked if I could elaborate on the subject for a forthcoming issue.  Having already exposed myself in the pose of someone who understood this depressing subject I did not then find myself in a position to refuse their request.  It is not a subject I would otherwise choose on my own, but here it is.

Let me say, right off, that what I know about this subject has no basis in personal bookselling experience.  I have never let a machine price my books or even been in the presence of a machine that I knew was programmed to do so.  I would be fascinated to hear a personal account from a colleague who had actually tried this with his own books, but I suspect that if there really is someone amongst us who has already ventured down this gloomy path he would be reluctant to step forward and tell us about it. So you are left with me.

Algorithmic pricing (also known as robo pricing) refers to the use of specialized computer programs  to automate the pricing of  books (or anything else for that matter).  The best known providers of these programs are Monsoon and Fillz. Once provided with the ISBN number of any book, either of these services can connect to the internet and retrieve the prices and other relevant information for all the copies of that book available on the major book sites.   This is, of course, an automated version of what most of the rest of us already do manually nearly every day.  But the robopricing engines take this one step further and include the ability to customise a small program (the “algorithim”) that processes all the data that it collects and spits out a price to match the particular instructions it was given.   It might, for instance, decide that it wants its copies to be priced at the exact median of all available copies (a bad strategy I would think) or to be 5 pence cheaper than any other copy, or half the average of any book with over 10 listings, or to be priced with virtually any other clever strategy the bookseller might conceive.  Moreover, the software  runs on a kind of auto-pilot that can continuously update prices online as things change, or even if they don’t .  The knowledge and experience of the bookseller plays no role in this operation.   Facts about the book itself are irrelevant.  All that is taken into consideration is the quantifiable information that can be gathered from the current online listings tied to a given ISBN.

The “algo” has no problems doing its job as long as it is given data to process,  but the situation can become  “interesting” when there are little or no other copies available for it to price against. Then anything is possible.  This was almost certainly the situation with the books that the concerned member was noticing. With nothing real to go on, the algorithm just went fishing with a very optimistic idea of what price might be possible.  It did not have to do this, of course.  The algorithm could have been designed with more reasonable expectations.  In this case it was just badly designed, and the result was a book that would not sell, at least until the algorithm decided to bring it back down to earth, which it probably eventually did.

An even crazier situation can result when there are only two copies of the same book available at the same time and both are being priced by algorithms that require their copy to always be the second least expensive available.  (Or the most expensive, though I doubt that actually occurs)  Books in this circumstance have been known to reach prices in the millions.

When this happens to a rare but insignificant book it may be good for a snicker or a chuckle, but in the end it is probably harmless.   What robo pricing does at other end of the scale, however, is much more significant and, increasingly, pervasive.   This is because the algorithms are really designed to drive prices down rather than up. They are meant to find the price at which an item is most likely to sell, and that price is almost always the lowest price. When there are hundreds, or even just dozens of identical copies available it is a clear sign that the supply of that book greatly exceeds the demand.   In that case, the successful algorithm will be the one that prices a copy at the lowest possible price.  If multiple sellers are using similar algorithms  then it is likely the price will drop to a penny, or whatever is set as the minimum price for that particular site.

The issue of profit may be irrelevant in this case.  It is probably more a question of minimizing final costs.  Once a book has been purchased, entered into the system, and determined to be too common to sell, it then becomes a question of cutting the bookseller’s loss.  Does it produce the least loss to cull and pulp it, indefinitely allocate a section of finite shelf space for it, or sell it in return for 1p + postage + the email address and personal details of someone now known to buy second-hand books.  In many cases it will be the one penny sale.   This is probably the kind of decision a machine can make much better than a human.

Fortunately, hardly any of us ever have to deal with books of that sort.  But there are books that fall somewhere between the two extremes described above, and it is with these that the robo pricers expose a new reality that most of us will need to understand and, in a some cases, adapt to.

In the past, the price of a given book, usually pencilled onto the fly leaf,  was set by the seller at a carefully considered figure he believed one of his potential customers might eventually be induced to pay for it.  At the point of sale, in most cases, only one copy and one price would be involved in the decision to purchase.   Unless sold to another customer, the book that was refused one day would almost always have the same price two weeks, two months or two years later.  This is the way most retail products have traditionally been priced, and second-hand booksellers were no exception.  The arrival of the internet  changed this in at least one important respect:  the seller, for the first time, had easy access to the prices and other details of all the copies being offered by his competitors at that moment  and could set his own price on that basis.

There had always been something that you could call a “marketplace” for old books, but before the internet it operated in a dense fog.    Some historical information about the prices of books existed in auction records, price guides and in the proprietary memories of booksellers.  Generally accessible information about current availability and prices, however, did not exist.  There was no real marketplace where public knowledge of current prices and supply was available to all participants.   By making that information available in real time the internet changed  the “marketplace” for rare and second-hand books from a metaphor to a reality.

We are all now dealing with the enormous disruption that results from this.  Our accustomed ability to operate as free traders outside the pricing forces of an open marketplace is continuously challenged and reduced.  Only the portion of the book trade that deals in genuinely rare books escapes these pressures.

It would be merciful to leave the story there and not look further ahead, but the subject I started with cannot really be closed without noting one further aspect in which algorithmic pricing significantly alters the business of selling books: commoditisation.  Algorithms can set their prices dynamically.  The idea that you pencil a price into a book and then leave it there until it’s sold may soon become a quaint anachronism.   And when a book price can change dynamically on the basis of all the other prices that are also continuously changing it creates a pricing process where the acquired knowledge of booksellers is, ultimately, unnecessary, if not useless.  In that circumstance the book becomes a commodity plain and simple.  As with any commodity exchange, the market sets the price and the human participants are only there to record the transactions, collect the money and arrange delivery.  On the product side, Amazon has, of course, been treating books as commodities in this respect from it’s very beginning.  When dynamic pricing engines come to set the price of a given ISBN or ASIN in an open online marketplace then the transformation, for that book at least, is complete.

Our one consolation is that this commoditisation, if it does indeed take place, will most likely be restricted to books that have ISBN numbers and always have at least a few similar copies for sale online.  I suspect that there are very few ABA members who derive a major portion of their income from online sales of books like these.   They can be thankful that they do not.  But for the portion of the online book trade that does not regularly handle rare or pre-ISBN books the future may not be so bright.

(Updated July 16, 2018)

May we please have our description back?

Plagiarism has been in the air lately.  Its latest draft blows our way from a recent report in the Guardian about an award-winning poet whose award-winning poem (with many others) turns out to have been written by someone else.  And he wasn’t even the first prize-winning British copy-cat poet this year.

You might expect otherwise, but the latest victim, Canadian poet Colin Morton, is more puzzled than angered by what seems to be a growing trend. Why steal a poem, of all things? Well, there was a prize, but the imposter has had to give it back.  It has not been mentioned whether Morton now gets the prize money instead. He is probably disqualified by some technicality, but I doubt he will complain. Poets are like that.

And besides, in most cases when this sort of thing comes to light the author whose work was cribbed does not actually suffer as a consequence.  If anything, his stature is enhanced and his creative work receives public attention that might never have come to it otherwise. It was, after all, the poem’s previous lack of recognition that made it suitable for theft.  No more.  One can well imagine that it has been read more times during the  last two weeks than during the first 30 years following its publication.   Its author has become, for the moment at least, a celebrity among his peers

All of which I would not have thought worth commenting on if it had not been for a book we almost bought at about the same time.

The book was Les Jardins Precieux by Raymond Charmaison, a copy of which appeared at auction in Paris last week. It is a book we know well.  There is not much to it in the way of text, but the 8 large plates are a tour de force of pochoir color printing. It is a beautiful book that begs for display, or, unfortunately,  for sacrifice to the framer.  If you happen to be in possession of a copy of Hinck & Wall Catalogue # 54 (“Garden History,” copyright 2002) you will find a lengthier and even more enthusiastic description of it at item number 29.  For those who do not have a copy readily at hand I will reproduce our description here:

Edition limited to 300 numbered copies. Illustrated with eight stunning pochoir plates colored by Jean Saudé. Each plate presents a garden view focused on a special garden feature – a yew walk, an oil jar, a berceau, etc. – rendered in the richest colors of the pochoir technique: for example, the “Salle Verte” is a profound green hedge room with a yellow sky and a pool reflecting all the green variation as well as the vibrant color combinations of the flower plantings in the setting; the rose trellis is set against a star-lit, full-mooned midnight blue sky, again with pool reflections and with a rich parterre and border planting colors. These imaginary “Precious Gardens” are a testament to the power of the printed book as a vehicle for transporting the viewer/reader into the garden and a world of dreams. As Henri Régnier observes in the book’s gold-printed preface, “Il contient quelques feuilles avec des lignes and des couleurs, à peine les aurez vous considerées que vous serez transporté dans un pays de lumière et de soliel...” Pierre Corrard, novelist and poet, established his publishing house in 1912 and began working with such noted illustrators of the day as Georges Barbier, Charles Martin and A.E. Marty. After his death his wife, Nicole Corrard, resumed his publishing efforts under the name “Collection Pierre CorrardSuccessive issues of “ALBUM DES MODES ET MANIERES D’AUJOURD’HUI and similar luxury productions made the house’s fame. Much as their luxurious pochoir renderings of fashion designs helped express the artistry of French haute couture during this period, so did the stunning plates of LES JARDINS PRÉCIEUX give graphic expression to the new artistic visions of the “jardins d’artiste.”

It is, I think I can say, a nice book. We had easily sold our first copy and so thought we might like to buy another.   Naturally, before making a bid, we checked on viaLibri to see if any other copies might already be for sale.  We were not surprised to discover that there were.  What did surprise us, however, was how familiar the descriptions sounded.   Ann Marie had written our catalogue description over 10 years ago, but she immediately recognized her own words and comments in the current listings she found online.

Ignoring the framed prints, there were, in fact, two different copies offered for sale, and each of them included significant chunks  that had apparently been copied from our original description. But not all the same chunks. In neither case had we been consumed whole. Instead, we had served more as a banquet at which the two cataloguers had each picked out just those dishes that appealed to them the most.  Some other parts were, on the other hand, completely ignored.  Perhaps those were parts that we still needed to improve.  We were never told. But if you are curious to know the parts which did satisfy the standards of these particular plagiarists you will find them in boldface in the excerpt above.

All this is nothing new.  I probably would not have thought about it further if I had not made this discovery on the same day that I read the story in the Guardian.   At first I looked at the obvious parallels and thought that, in some diluted way, our copied catalogue description might be like a stolen poem.  I quickly realized, however, that it is not.

In truth, no one can steal a poem.  Once you have written it and shown it to the world you can always put your name on it and claim it for your own.  And that seems to be true of almost any published work that later comes into the grasp of a plagiarist.  Once the author reclaims his authorship the plagiarist is readily exposed.  An author never loses the ability to republish or recite what is rightfully his.

But I now see that there is an exception…

Once a catalogue description has been copied online it is, for all intents and purposes, no longer available to its creator.  In our case, we can no longer use our description of Les Jardins Precieux.  How could we?  If we tried to catalogue another copy our potential customers would almost certainly do what we did: they would check first to see what other copies were available online.  Doing this they would find two others  described with the same words we were presenting as our own.  Two thirds of our description would appear to be plagiarized from other booksellers.  Any expertise or integrity we might previously have had in our customers eyes would be destroyed.  That is something we dare not risk.


As I said before, plagiarism is nothing new.   The internet has, however, significantly changed its dynamics, both for the good and the bad.  Much of the commentary about Morton’s stolen poem focused on this.   One the one hand,  the plagiarist is presumed to have found the poems (there were many) by searching online.  This is certainly where the lazy booksellers hunt and trap.  A quick cut and paste and it’s theirs.  They will not always be foolish enough to copy current online listings, but any unlisted item that can be found by Google is regarded as fair game, especially if it doesn’t show up on the first one or two pages of results.

On the other hand, the internet is an equally powerful tool for discovering that copying has taken place.  The first stolen poem discovered in the most recent case was recognized  by its author at an online poetry site.  After that, it only took an hour to find a dozen more.  Obviously, internet search tools make this sort of theft much harder to get away with.  It may mean the end of an era, at least as far as poetry plagiarism is concerned.

It is an encouraging thought, and it inevitably lead me to wonder whether internet search engines might not at some point also bring a similar benefit to antiquarian booksellers.  Unfortunately, I tend to think not, at least as things stand now.   The reason is that, in order for the plagiarists to be easily exposed, the original material that they copy must be easily found.  At present, booksellers do everything they can to keep their descriptions off of the internet once the books are sold.  They do this precisely because they do not want others to copy them.   But the plagiarists will find them anyway, especially if they also once appeared in printed catalogues, as much of the most useful specialist material has always done.  By hiding their intellectual property from easy online discovery the only thing they really accomplish is making it safer for plagiarists  to use their material without fear of exposure.  Hiding material from search engines will become an increasingly futile task as the age of Big Data rolls forward. In the long run, the only protection that will work will be one that makes is it harder and harder for plagiarism to go undetected when it occurs.

Most booksellers claim copyright for their catalogue contents, and a few even threaten legal action against violators.  The law may be on their side, but I have never heard of a bookseller actually taking a plagiarism claim to court.  Copyright is, it seems, a toothless protection.

But I have an idea for something that might actually provide the protection that copyright alone does not.  As you might expect, it involves, once again, the internet.  If that is where the crimes are now being committed, that is where we should put our cops to work.  What I have in mind is a descriptive bibliographic database where booksellers can publish all their copyrighted descriptions in a way that clearly establishes priority and ownership.  It would be a public place where you can claim what is yours.  But it would also be much more than that.  If enough booksellers participated, an open searchable database of this nature would soon constitute a valuable bibliographic reference that collectors, librarians, students and scholars could use for all types of research.  It would make a useful permanent resource out of information that is now mostly ephemeral.  It would also be a magnet for anyone with an interest in old books.  An entry could be freely quoted, but only with complete and unambiguous attribution to the bookseller who was its source.    This wouldn’t make it impossible to plagiarize, but any booksellers who tried to use these descriptions as if they were their own would be soon exposed.  Once established, I would expect the incidence of plagiarism in book cataloguing to decline dramatically, at least among any booksellers who hoped to claim a reputation for expertise and integrity.

And if such a database existed today we would still be able to use our own words to describe our next copy of Les Jardins Precieux.  What Ann Marie had created would once again be hers.

This is my suggestion.  I think it is a good idea.  As it happens, I also have the means to put such a thing in place, but only if I knew that there were others who agreed and were willing to join in.  I am now, as they say “all ears”.


Two Hundred Years and Still Searching

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.