A brilliant exhibition of illuminated manuscripts opened this weekend at the Fitzwilliam Museum. If you have any chance of getting to Cambridge before the end of the year this is something you absolutely should not miss.
While a focus on the importance of colour in medieval and early renaissance art brings out a visually stunning selection of items to display, the attention paid to the technical aspects of the subject (pigment types, recipes, international pigment trade, painting techniques, modelling, alchemy, etc.) makes this more than just a collection of beautiful artwork, although it is certainly that too.
Fortunately, if you cannot make it in person you will only be missing out on a portion of what has been done here. There is, of course, an illustrated printed catalogue (420 pages) which includes general commentary along with extensive catalogue notes on the 150 items placed on display. At £30 it is a remarkable bargain.
But perhaps even more impressive is the website created in support of the exhibition. There, reachable by an obscure link near the end of the introduction, is a section of the website entitled “ILLUMINATED: manuscripts in the making.” where high resolution digitised copies of 20 of the manuscripts can be browsed and zoomed. The quality of these images is exceptional; some of them nearly sparkle on the screen. They are the first fruits of a manuscript digitisation project which has just been launched and which, together with the exhibition and its catalogue, celebrates the museum’s bicentenary.
COLOUR is really a remarkable event. The Fitzwilliam has “the finest and largest museum collection of illuminated manuscripts in existence” and most of the items exhibited are from its own collection. Much of that collection came to it as part of the bequest of the museum’s founder Richard, VII Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion, in 1816. A provision of that bequest requires that the manuscripts cannot leave the museum building. Thus they can only be seen at an exhibition like the one now underway. Many are now on public view for the first time. All of which underlines the importance of this exhibition and the Illuminated project to digitise the Fitzwilliam’s spectacular collection.
[Long before viaLibri had its own proper blog I began blogging (and even tweeting) under the name of vialibrian. It was not, I must confess, a very sustained effort, and the size of my following reflected this. Now that viaLibri has its own blog, demanding its own attentions, I have had to acknowledge that finding the time for a single blog is challenge enough. I do not need two. So vialibrian has posted his last post.
However, we still imagine that most of the subjects that vialibrian chose to comment on continue to be interest, at least to some. So, rather than abandon the old posts completely I decided to let them emigrate here to a new home where they can live on in fresh obscurity. Most will just sit far back in the timeline, as though they had been there all along. A few of them, however, will be brought over and re-inserted, under the pretence that there may still be visitors who will find interest in what we had to say a few years ago.
We begin here with some comments on book searching that were first posted on August 4, 2013.]
Searching for books in days of yore.
Back in April , when I launched this blog, I was pleased that my first post managed to elicit a nice comment. One particular point made by this commenter has been banging around in my head ever since. On the subject of want lists, he wrote:
Electronic book-collecting tools are all focused on “dealer push” — a vendor essentially saying, “Here’s what I have. Are you interested.” The tools aggregate and push this information. We know that many large booksellers do not have the time or inclination to post all of their inventories. It would be nice to go back to the old days of “pull” — posting want lists in magazines to let dealers and fellow collectors know what we are interested in and looking for. It’s a service I would readily pay for within the context of a strong collector community like ViaLibri.
It was an interesting suggestion, even without the hint of additional revenue. It made me wonder. I am always surprised at how easy it is to forget the ”old days” of antiquarian bookselling, before the internet changed everything. It was a time when weekly printed periodicals like The Clique, Bookdealer and AB Bookman were the primary tools of book searching; or, more precisely, the only tools for book searching.
For those too young or forgetful to remember, it worked like this: First you made a list of the books you wanted. Unless you were a bookseller yourself, you then had to find someone who was and give them your list. They would type it up [another call to nostalgia] along with all the other lists they had been given and then mail it to one of the aforementioned magazines where it would appear, along with numerous other similar lists, every week, ink on paper, in endless printed columns of ”Books Wanted.” At that point thousands of hopeful booksellers around the world, many of them list-makers themselves, would begin reading through the pages, line after line, column after column, searching hopefully for any wanted book they might happen to have for sale.
After that the “quoting” would begin. Items to be quoted would first need to be hunted for and located on whatever shelf they had been assigned to or misplaced on. Then descriptions had to be prepared. Postcards, paper slips, even letters would be written, usually by hand, describing, as succinctly as possible, the essential details of the book on offer – and little more. The amount of time required to write all these descriptions placed a great premium on abbreviation. As a result, a compact, almost stenographic language of book description evolved in response. (It had, I would grant, antecedents in the jargon of printed catalogues) Notations such as a.e.g, ARC, ALS, FE, bce, f.f.e., v.g. and, most notorious of all, w.a.f, all became part of the compressed specialist language of booksellers and initiated collectors. But even these shortcuts only reduced by a small fraction the work at hand. And it was not a stimulating activity by any measure.
But tedious labor was not the only investment made in quoting books for sale. Ignoring the cost of postage (which for some might not be an insignificant expense) the bookseller also invested opportunity cost with every book he offered for sale. This came from the fact that quoting a book nearly always meant removing it from available stock and putting it on reserve. In the days of snail mail this usually involved three weeks or even a month. (Sometimes the actual customer at the other end also needed to be contacted by post, so a month could easily pass before a sale could be confirmed). To quote a book and then be unable to provide it was a breach of faith that few colleagues would easily forgive or forget. So the decision to quote an item to a distant hypothetical customer might also mean foregoing its equally possible sale to a customer who might actually walk through the door after the book had been withdrawn on quote. The more desirable and uncommon the book, the greater the risk and cost in putting it on reserve.
The quoters, however, were not the ones who took the greatest risk. That would be found on the other side of the potential transaction: the booksellers who made the lists in the first place. These, you see, were not free. They were paid advertising, pure and simple. You were charged by the line, or the page, and it was not cheap. Every book listed was a separate wager that a copy might be found and sold. Many booksellers were only willing to take this gamble on the behalf of their regular customers. The others who were willing to offer a “search service” to the general public did so as a calculated risk. For most of these, the ordinary out-of-print book was their bread and butter. The more common it was the better. On one hand, a customer looking for Fanny Farmer’s Cook Book was as good as money in the bank. On the other hand, a PHD student with a list of the 18th century epistolary novels not already available from nearby libraries was an almost certain financial loss.
A few booksellers would try to shift their risk by charging their customers for each book they wanted before they had found it. This was, however, unusual. The typical customer readily perceived a potential scam in this approach and usually went elsewhere. The “free” book search service was always the norm.
In spite of the risk, many who provided this service appeared to be quite successful and regularly advertised multiple pages of wants. Some even advertised their free services in places like the New York Times and the TLS. The economics of this have always been intriguing to skeptics like myself. It is a losing game to advertise for uncollected books that are unlikely be found. If you had the experience to already know what was available, and what was not, the temptation to ignore requests for the latter might be difficult to resist. The only alternative would be to have the customer for Fanny Farmer subsidise the cost of searching for the other items that were unlikely to be found. This was the usual approach, but it could make the out-of-print cookbooks and knitting manuals very expensive. And often they were, at least when you resorted to a search service to find them. But the buyers rarely complained. They generally understood that the marketplace for old books was hopelessly disorderly and inefficient. Whenever it did manage to yield, on request, a long sought-after item the reaction on the part of the customer was almost always a mixture of gratitude and surprise.
Many, many books were bought and sold in this fashion. It was a system that lasted a bit more than a century. It helped sustain many struggling booksellers whose shops were otherwise too remote from regular customers to support a living wage. It provided to the inexperienced novitiates of the antiquarian book trade a weekly lesson book on the mysterious marketplace they hoped to enter. It became, in many respects, the universal binding agent in the large and otherwise disconnected world of second-hand bookselling.
Our friend Laurence Worms, blogging as the Bookhunter on Safari, has written another of his must-read posts, this time on the subject of erroneous information being spread through the cataloguing of online booksellers. His case in point was 5 dealers offering copies of a pamphlet by Rupert Brooke that they all described as having been printed in an edition of 500 copies. The statement was made even though Keynes, Brooke’s authoritative bibliographer, states clearly that the number printed was 20,000, and there are no grounds for claiming otherwise.
But the title of the post, “Assertive Cataloguing,” actually points to another bookselling firm (William Reese Company) which described the book correctly and then took the opportunity to flash its torchlight upon the multitude of misinformed colleagues who are lazier than they. This juicy bit of cataloguing reads:
“First separate edition, published on 15 November in an edition of 20,000 copies — not 500 copies as is incorrectly asserted in a multitude of online listings collectively offering ample evidence of how the virus-like perpetuation of baseless misinformation originating in laziness rather than consultation with reliable authority — i.e. the standard bibliography — can quickly permeate the collective databases. “
Laurence, of course, is more delicate in his admonishments and focuses instead, and with far more devastating effect, on a the extensive bibliographic evidence available to disprove some further preposterous claims, made by three nameless “culprits,” that “this scarce pamphlet is Brooke’s third appearance in print.” The absurdity of this “third appearance” claim is relentlessly demolished, almost to the point of making me feel sorry for the unnamed and unknowing “culprits” who foolishly cribbed their info from sources that probably knew even less about Brooke than they did. Laurence, of course, named no names, but anyone curious to learn identities (as I’m sure many were) could have quickly gone to viaLibri and seen who these mistaken sellers were – provided they were quick about it. By Friday morning listings were being pulled or corrections were being made, and one imagines that before the weekend is over no more embarrassing evidence will remain to be found. (Except with Google, which takes longer to forget). This is, I’m sure, small consolation for the sellers involved, but at least this one bit of misinformation has now been removed from the internet and, one hopes, will not return.
One central thing, however, is left unresolved: where did the erroneous bibliographic information come from in the first place? This is what I really want to know. We have five booksellers who claimed that there were only 500 copies printed. Did one of them make this up and then have the other four copy him? Or did they all copy from yet other booksellers who had long since sold their copies and disappeared from scrutiny. Or could the information have first appeared in some other erroneous source, perhaps long ago, and been repeated often enough to become regarded as accepted fact that didn’t need to be verified.
Laurence, I suspect, holds the internet responsible. He is no friend of “the appalling ABE, home of bibliographical iniquity,” although in this case he notes that even the ILAB site also offered two of the copies that were incorrectly described. Several others did so as well. But I think the selling sites are not the problem. Clearly neither AbeBooks nor ILAB do more than offer a platform for dealers to sell books they describe themselves. The platforms can no more be expected to vet the descriptions of the books they list than FedEx can be expected to vouch for their completeness when they deliver them.
That said, there can be no question that the internet has now become a primary vector for the transmission of error into the bibliographic record. But it is not the first such vector. In its day, paper and pencil could do the same kind of damage, and anyone now relying blindly on the accuracy of bibliographic records compiled and researched with any previous technology will be equally likely, some day, to repeat the kind of errors committed in this instance by the “’FIVE SONNETS’ Five .” We know that technologies are only as good as the people who employ them. This case is no different. What is more important is to know what can be done to improve the accuracy of all the bibliographic tools we rely on and, in our own ways, contribute to.
Laurence is clearly right that errors such as the one he posted about do damage to all of us as booksellers. Those who are careful and accurate may, to the novice at least, appear less knowledgeable and reliable than those who offer appealing information that just happens to be false. And we should want to do something about this. To blame the internet for bibliographic errors is blaming the messenger. Errors will certainly propagate on the internet, but they will also be exposed there and hopefully, in time, eliminated. This is what has happened here. Those with real knowledge exposed to scrutiny the bibliographic errors of others and helped save future bibliophiles from these probably innocent mistakes. This is a process that we can expect to continue, especially if those booksellers who are knowledgeable will make an effort, like the William Reese cataloguer, to draw attention to errors as they surface.
In fact, I’m inclined to believe that the internet has already been protecting collectors from the type of errors we are talking about, even before corrections are made. Consider this example. If we assume, as I do, that the mistake about the 500 copies is older than the internet, then we have to wonder what would have been the consequence for a pre-internet buyer who was offered a copy of “1914” FIVE SONNETS that had been incorrectly described. That buyer would logically assume that a fragile 8 page pamphlet by a highly collected author, published in an edition of only 500 copies, would almost certainly be rare. And he would have paid a high price for it. Even the bookseller, who might not own a copy of Keynes, would have no reason to think it should be otherwise. But the same buyer today, presented with the same pamphlet and the same claims, would only need to look on viaLibri to find over a dozen copies for sale. This would give him hard evidence that the item was not rare at all, in spite of the claims of the seller. And it would give a seller no protection for claiming rarity that was not, in fact, the case. It seems to me that this new reliance on the quantifiable evidence of online search engines has come to replace reliance on the assertive claims of rarity that dominated before our time. This is probably not the sense of “assertive cataloguing” that Laurence had in mind when he put this title on his post. However, if he is looking for a good tag to use when he teaches his new class of cataloguers about the perils they must avoid, then I think it might be just the thing. But the biggest peril of all, of course, is copying someone else’s “research” without verifying its accuracy on your own. And on this score professor Worms has presented an excellent lesson for all of us.
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.
If you have been giving any thought to selling books on your own website, or if you already have a website but haven’t yet figured out how to get collectors to actually visit it, then we have an announcement that we think should be of interest to you: LibriDirect has now officially been launched. And what is LibriDirect? It is, in a nutshell, how independent booksellers can use viaLibri to bring customers to their websites.
This is, of course, something we have been working on for years. It began with developing tools to harvest websites and put the books of independent booksellers into search results on viaLibri. It was a good start, but the technical requirements, though simple, were an obstacle for many of the sellers who wanted to sign up. We realised early on that we also needed to develop a solution where the technical requirements were already taken care of. We needed to build websites ourselves that came with all the necessary features already built in. And these we named LibriDirect because their purpose, above all else, was to bring booksellers into direct connection with the online customers who bought their books.
But it also became more than just that. In the process of creating websites we found ourselves reexamining the entire question of how to sell books on the internet, especially in the wake of the incredible growth of social media and the dramatic transition of the internet from a primarily textual to an overwhelmingly visual medium. We are quite optimistic about what these trends will mean for the future of book collecting, and, by extension, bookselling.
It was with these things in mind that we took a stand at the London Olympia book fair where we hoped to talk with booksellers about the future of bookselling and to demonstrate, in particular, how LibriDirect websites can help them find their future customers in the advancing digital age.
However, if you wanted to learn more, but couldn’t drop by, you have not been forgotten. We have prepared a special page that describes many of the things we things we might have told you if we had had the chance. Just follow this link to and discover what LibriDirect can do for you.
Unless you have been paying very close attention you probably hadn’t noticed that viaLibri has recently started building websites. We are doing this, in particular, for booksellers who want to be connected directly to the collectors who find books to buy when searching on viaLibri. Of course, for several years now we have been “harvesting” data from existing individual websites and using it to create “Direct From Bookseller” purchase links. But for us to do that you already had to have your own website, and it needed to be set up in a certain way. Now, if you don’t have your own website we can go ahead and build one for you. And it will, of course, be fully connected to search results from viaLibri and the Libribot wants manager.
Today we launched one of these new websites for our old friend Janette Ray and are eager to invite all our followers to pay it a visit at www.janetteray.co.uk.
I have always enjoyed looking at Janette’s books at fairs, and have even visited her shop in distant York. Anyone with an interest in architecture, design, planning, landscape architecture or similar subjects should find click on her website to be worthwhile. You should also note that her books can only be purchased online directly from her site, and nowhere else. They will, of course, be searchable on viaLibri (as well as on the ILAB and ABA websites) but you have to go directly to Janette if you want to actually buy one.
And if you think you might want a website of your own like Janette’s you should get in touch. If you happen to be in London this weekend we will have a stand at Olympia and will be happy to discuss the possibilities (see our previous post). If you will be somewhere else this weekend you can always just contact us via email. We look forward to hearing from you either way.
The annual London International Antiquarian Book Fair happens next week and viaLibri will be there. We hope you will be there too. If we haven’t yet had a chance to talk in person, we hope you will take this opportunity to drop by booth L07 and say hello.
If you do come by you will also get a chance to meet Alasdair North, our CTO and general technological whiz. Al has taken in hand a great digital leap forward for viaLibri and he will be happy to talk about the future, and your suggestions for it, if you are able to drop by.
There is one thing in particular that will be on our screens for you to see. Our recently launched LibriDirect website platform lets us build powerful but economical websites that connect individual booksellers directly to the international stream of bibliophiles who use viaLibri and Libribot on a regular basis. If you are thinking of getting your own website, or already have a website that you would like to connect directly with viaLibri, then by all means come by. And if you want to make an appointment for an in-depth discussion then please let us know.
Of course, if you would rather just walk around and look at all the wonderful books on display then we will understand. You can always contact us later after the fair is over.
For details about attending the the fair click HERE
We have just added ABC Antiquariat Marco Pinkus to the ranks of booksellers with websites being harvested and searched by viaLibri. Located in Zurich, Switzerland, they can now claim the honour of being the first Swiss booksellers to have their websites searched directly by viaLibri and Libribot. (I should note that the honours for the US, UK, Germany, Ireland, France, Denmark, Australia, and Italy have already been claimed).
You can, of course, find books directly on their website, abc-buch.ch, and we heartily encourage you to do so. Otherwise, the only place on the internet where you can currently search for their books is on viaLibri, and on the several ILAB sites whose search engines we built and maintain. So we are especially pleased have ABC Antiquariat Marco Pinkus as our newest partner and thank them for the confidence they have placed in us.
I will be spending most of the next four days wandering the isles at the Paris International Antiquarian Book Fair (AKA Grand Palais). Anyone else who will be there and thinks they might enjoy a break to discuss viaLibri, LibriBot, or anything else of a similar nature, should definitely get in touch. Click HERE to send me a message, and be sure to leave the number for your mobile phone.
We have just added J & J Lubrano to the ever-growing list of booksellers whose individual websites are being searched directly by viaLibri. They have also just redesigned their site, so if you are interested in things related to music and dance you may want to pay them a visit.
In addition to being among the world’s foremost specialists in their field, they are also old friends we have known since our earliest days as booksellers in New England over 35 years ago. So we are more than usually happy to now welcome them on board.