Latest Developments in the Girolamini Scandal

Recent events in the wake of the Girolamini thefts have revealed that the Italian authorities who are  pursuing the matter appear to be clueless about the nature of the books that they are charged with recovering.   Many interesting details in this regard are found in the recent memorandum sent to the Italian judiciary by ILAB president Norbert Donhofer, copied below.  Among other things, this astonishing text reveals that, in the minds of the Italian investigators, it is possible for books which have already been seized and secured in police vaults in Germany to be held at the same time on the shelves of a Danish bookseller.  This miraculous transmigration of texts leads us to wonder what other fantastical accusations may await us in the future.

The text of the ILAB memorandum follows:

MEMORANDUM OF ILAB TO THE ITALIAN JUDICIARY

In March 2012 Professor Tomaso Montanari first brought to light a cultural theft, which then appeared to be limited to the Girolamini Library, based in Naples. We now know that the Director of the library at the time, Marino Massimo de Caro, widened his trail in plundering through other libraries in Italy as well: Montecassino, Naples Municipal Library, Ministry of Agriculture Library, a Seminary in Padua, and the Ximines Observatory Library in Florence. Soon after the discovery of the theft the Italian authorities announced that four books from the Girolamini Library were offered in Auction 59 (May 2012) at the Munich Auction House Zisska and Schauer, and arranged for them to be seized by the German police. The auction house thereupon recalled all books from this consignment – a total of 540 titles – and handed them over to the German authorities in Munich, where these books have been stored to this day.

 

The President of ILAB at the time – Arnoud Gerits – then informed the members of ILAB in an open letter and he immediately offered his assistance and cooperation to the Italian investigating authorities to uncover the truth of this scandal. When Tom Congalton was elected the new President of ILAB in the autumn of 2012, he gave renewed assurances to the Italian authorities of ILAB’s willingness to assist in every conceivable manner to get to the bottom of this case. Both offers, as well as many others made subsequently, went unanswered by the Italian authorities.

On April 8 in 2013, the President of the Italian Association of Antiquarian Booksellers, ALAI, Fabrizio Govi, attempted to relate the criminal route of Marino Massimo de Caro in a speech in the Library of Congress; in the edition of the “The New Yorker” of December 16 in  2013, Nicholas Schmidle described in detail how the former Director of the Girolamini Library was further implicated. Both of these, the speech made by Fabrizio Govi and Nicholas Schmidle’s article, were also brought to the attention of the Italian authorities.

In 2013 the Italian antiquarian bookseller Giuseppe Solmi was arrested by the Italian Carabinieri, and released a short time later. The charge: dealing in books stolen from one of the libraries in which Marino Massimo de Caro was operating. On the 2nd of August of the same year the auctioneer Herbert Schauer was arrested on the strength of a European arrest warrant, and deported to Italy several weeks afterwards. The charge: dealing in books stolen from one of the libraries in which Marino Massimo de Caro was operating and participation in a criminal association. Herbert Schauer was condemned to a five-year prison sentence early this summer, but meanwhile the arrest of Mr. Schauer was lifted by the Italian Court of Cassation.

 

The latest case in relation to this affair concerns the Danish antiquarian bookseller Christian Westergaard. He was arrested several weeks ago in front of his family. The charge: dealing in books stolen from one of the libraries in which Marino Massimo de Caro was operating. To be sure, Christian Westergaard was released the same day, but the eleven books that had been secured by the Danish police during a mutual assistance procedure remained in safekeeping by the Danish police. The most astonishing thing about the latter case is the fact that all eleven books were also included in the catalogue of Zisska and Schauer’s Auction 59 and hence had already been secured by the German authorities since May 2012. For all eleven of the books that had been secured by him, Christian Westergaard was subsequently able to prove when, where and from whom he had acquired them. This includes also books he had acquired from the Macclesfield Auction at Sotheby’s in London (2006ff).

It was only a few days before the start of the first auction of Philobiblon/Bloomsbury (Rome) when the Carabinieri confiscated all lots of the auction by order of the court at Naples. It was suspected that some books of this auction had been stolen from the Girolamini library. The President of ALAI, Fabrizio Govi, appointed two independent experts to check the books, and Mr. Danesi and Mr. Parkin reported that not a single book of the auction could be traced back to an Italian Public Library.

ILAB protests against this unprofessional approach by the Italian authorities in the strongest terms. A simple glance at the lists of the items stored in Munich would have shown straightaway that the books seized in Denmark could not possibly be those volumes that were stolen by Marino Massimo de Caro, nor does it appear to be clear to the investigating authorities that in the vast majority of cases there are naturally a number of copies of printed books, whatever age they may be, that differ in their state of preservation, binding, or provenance.

ILAB further protests against the fact that, through the procedures chosen by the Italian authorities, respectable citizens and business people are falling under suspicion of criminal actions and consequently their reputations are being frivolously compromised. The shock experienced by the families of those arrested under undignified circumstances is also mentioned here for the sake of completion.

ILAB is also protesting against the fact that, as a result of these measures, an entire profession is being stigmatized and might be at risk of losing its credit standing with private and institutional clients, as well as banks, which has taken decades to build up.

ILAB is a long way from giving advice to the Italian judiciary, but we are renewing our offer to the investigating authorities to assist in having these criminal actions thoroughly cleared up and to cooperate unconditionally. By providing you with some expertise required to differentiate between different copies of the same title, we might be able to help prevent a repetition of potentially embarrassing and unnecessary events such as the regrettable arrest of Christian Westergaard. Once again ILAB requests the Italian authorities to provide us with lists of the stolen books which could be included in our stolen books database.

As President of ILAB, I would be happy to meet with the relevant authorities at any time.

Norbert Donhofer, President of ILAB

Two new features

We have just added a pair of new features that we know will be of interest to at least a few of our most active users. It is now possible to perform multiple deletes of unwanted match results without having to manually check the check box for each separate item. Once this feature is activated you only have to check the items you want to keep.

We have also added the ability to perform bulk deletes of Libribot matches that no longer need to be saved. This feature has been requested by several of our users and we are pleased to finally make it available.

Details on using these new features will be found HERE and HERE.

Welcome NVvA

We have just added another important group of booksellers to our search results: the Nederlandsche Vereeniging van Antiquaren (NVvA). The members of this Dutch bookselling association, founded in 1935, are all affiliates of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers and include the most prominent and respected antiquarian booksellers in the Netherlands.

Their newly created book search engine has just been launched and is expected to grow quickly in the near future. We are very pleased to welcome them on board.

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)

viaLibri profiled in Business Weekly, demonstrating that the future of paper is still secure.

Business Weekly (“The Voice of Europe’s Innovation Capital – The East of England”) has just published an article about viaLibri.

It always feels a bit odd seeing yourself through the prism of other people’s interests and world view.  This was no exception, but I am not about to complain. I’m always happy when someone takes an interest in what I am doing, especially when they are approaching it from outside the generally biblio-centric universe I usually inhabit.   There was, naturally,  the inevitable interest in identifying the oldest books available, but I was spared having to also identify the most expensive.  Instead, the interviewer was curious to know about what countries the oldest books came from, and where they ended up.  That was actually an interesting question which I might have enjoyed answering at length, but I restrained myself.  Perhaps I will blog about it on another day.

Being interviewed was an interesting experience.  This publication is focused, in particular, on the fast growth, innovation-driven business community that is part of the technology cluster that has developed around Cambridge, England, where we are now based.  The people at the centre of it are working with stuff like genomes,  artificial intelligence and all the impossible to understand inventions that brainy people come up with when they start out doing pure research and then suddenly realize “hey, we could actually make something really useful out of this.”  Writing about all these freshly minted venture-backed technology companies and their more mature science park neighbors is what Business Weekly normally does.  Interviewing me was a bit off their usual beat.

So, as might be expected, the reporter was especially interested in knowing how viaLibri fit in with the well-reported march of disruptive technology as it applies to printed books.  He wondered if the growth of digital media and the reported death of paper might mean there was no future for books.  My opinion, of course, was to the contrary, and I was happy for the opportunity express it to an audience that might be thinking otherwise.

But what pleased me most was the discovery that Business Weekly itself offered irrefutable testimony to the superiority of paper over screen.  Because, you see, it is still a product of the printing press.  Of course, it now also has an online version, but that is a far less satisfactory product, albeit a far cheaper one to produce and distribute.   The article about viaLibri shows this.  In the printed version the article takes up all of page 4 (apart from an advertisement), and includes a large photograph in the middle.  In the photograph I am holding an interesting old book.  It is, moreover, a folio.  (The cheerleaders for ebooks are, of course, silent on the subject of folios).  The version of the article which appears on the website also has its picture, but the constraints of pixel and screen dictated that it had to be cropped.  The picture you see there shows only my head and shoulders.  The book I am holding is nowhere in sight.

Unfortunately, I cannot offer you a link to the printed version. That technology does not yet exist.  However, there is something else that I can link  to which will allow my point to be demonstrated quite well.  In addition to its ink and paper edition Business Weekly also appears in an “epaper” version. This is an exact digital facsimile of the printed version which allows you to “leaf” through its pages to the accompaniment of an annoying scratching/scraping sound.  If you scrape the epaper version of this week’s edition to page 4 you will see an image of the article, with the full photograph, as it also appears in print.  The epaper will show you what the website version has lost.

epaper version of Business Weekly

But you will not be able to actually read the epaper version because the type is much too small.  To make it legible you must zoom in.  That gives you type that is big enough to read, but forces you to scroll all over the page and read the text through what is, essentially, a moveable rectangular peep-hole. It is not a satisfying way to read.  Why? Because Business Weekly is a folio, as any good newspaper should be. epaper only comes in one format: small.  It is inextricably constrained by the dimensions of the screen on which it is displayed.  Folio is out of the question.  For that you need paper, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Which is one of many reasons why I think, for books at least, the future of paper is still secure.

viaLibri adds ISBN searching. Please ignore.

You may have noticed that a new feature has been introduced with viaLibri’s latest update. It is something many people have asked for. Most thought it should have been included a long time ago.  As in, from the beginning.  I resisted for many years, but have finally capitulated.  You are now able to search for books on viaLibri using ISBN.

Please don’t.

The reason is simple.  ISBN numbers are a terrible way to search for books.

I will certainly grant the fact that they serve an important purpose for the activities of publishers, distributors and new book stores.  I’m sure they are useful in other contexts as well, especially for those who are only interested in new books. If you inhabit a world where data is always orderly and you like the idea that books are generic objects suitable to the algorithmic demands of data processing and purchaser profiling, then ISBN is most definitely for you.  Happily, viaLibri does not yet live in that world, and I feel confident that most of its users do not want to live there either.  And they do not have to.  They do not need ISBN numbers, and are cordially invited to ignore them.

Because, as I said, ISBN numbers are a terrible way to search for books.  You will quickly discover this the first time you attempt to search online for an out-of-print book using its ISBN number and then repeat the search the old-fashioned way using author and title.  Author/title searches nearly always yield more and better results than searches based on ISBN.

The reasons for this are simple:  many of the booksellers who deal in older books do not bother with ISBNs, so the listings they put on the internet do not include them.   To a collector the information is meaningless, and the booksellers who focus on serving collectors generally share that attitude, even when they are also selling books to the general public.

But that is not the only reason why a second-hand book might be catalogued without its ISBN number.  Often a book will have a number, but it does not actually appear inside of it.  This is especially likely in the case of reprinted works that were originally published before ISBNs were firmly established. There are also many cases where the publisher didn’t obtain the ISBN until after the book was printed, or just didn’t think it was worth including as part of the text.  In all of these cases the book is very likely to be catalogued without its ISBN, and if you search for it using that ISBN there will be many available copies that you will not find .

A few examples pulled from my personal reference shelf will demonstrate.

You might, for instance, want to buy a copy of BOOKBINDING IN AMERICA 1680 – 1910. FROM THE COLLECTION OF FREDERICK E. MASER, published in 1983.  The ISBN number for this book is 0813910137, although it is nowhere to be found within the book itself.  But if you don’t have the number already you will have no trouble finding it by looking in WorldCat or an ISBN database.   If you use that number to search for your copy on viaLibri you will get 12 listings.  Only two copies are available for less than $25, both of them from Amazon.  However, if you try your search again, while ignoring the ISBN, and search instead for: title = “BOOKBINDING IN AMERICA MASER COLLECTION”,  you will receive 39 matches, including 3 additional copies that are priced for less than $25.  This is a significant difference in results.

Or, suppose you stumbled upon a reference to the 4 volume set of ARTS IN AMERICA, A BIBLIOGRAPHY, edited by Bernard Karpel and published by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1979.  Suppose you could not resist the impulse to buy a set of your own.   If your reference did not give you the ISBN number (0874745780)  WorldCat will, as will many other online sources.   It is also printed in the book.  The 10 digits seem so precise and unambiguous. It is easy to think that they would be the logical way to find your copy.  Please do not be fooled.    If you use those numbers for your search parameter you will find only 66 matches (including many odd volumes and duplicates)  and there will be no complete sets available in North America for less than $45.  If, on the other hand, you try your search using author and title you will, instead, be rewarded with a total of 104 matches, including five complete sets in North America selling for $40 or less.  The ISBN matches will still be there, but so will many others that would have otherwise been missed.

These are not the only good reasons for ignoring ISBNs.  For me, the most compelling reason is the potential for discovery.  You can’t always know whether the ISBN you are using will correspond with the best possible version of the book you are interested in.  What if there is a later enlarged edition that has a new ISBN?  You would not find out about the updated version if you did your searching with the ISBN of the earlier edition.   The author/title search would quickly let you know.

Sometimes, when you use author and title to search for one book the results you receive will also show you another, different work by the same author that could also be of interest.   With ISBNs you rarely discover anything you are not specifically looking for.  With names and words you may find something unexpected that is even more interesting than the book you thought you wanted.

I would also mention the problem of typos, a problem that comes from both buyer and seller.  These, of course, can happen anywhere, but they are much harder to notice and correct when it is only a string of numbers that have been mistyped.

Are there circumstances where only searching  by ISBN is worthwhile?  Very few.

It might sometimes be useful to check for strays after the old-fashioned author/title search had been tried.  This might find a copy of a book with a typo or other cataloguing error that might otherwise be missed.  Anything is possible.

Sometimes students are assigned text-books that are being continually “updated” by their publishers with new ISBNs.  In this case the student will only want a copy with the correct ISBN.  Used copies that are listed without this information will not be satisfactory, so searching by number would not exclude anything the searcher would want to buy.

Lastly, I have been told that there are online listings of books entered using non-Roman alphabets and that, unless you have a special keyboard, these books can only easily be found using ISBN numbers.  Having never encountered such a book during my own extensive burrowing through online data I am a bit sceptical that such listings actually exist. But I do not rule it out.

It is with these special circumstances in mind that the latest change was made.  I hope it will be regarded as an improvement.  But I still worry that people will actually use it for a purpose it does not serve.

At least I can tell myself that you, patient reader, have been warned.

 

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”.

 

Welcome TomFolio

We are pleased to announce the addition of TomFolio (www.tomfolio.com) to the bookselling sites we now search. This puts nearly 2 million additional listings within our reach, many of them offered exclusively on their site. Libribot is also including books from TomFolio in its searches.

TomFolio was launched 13 years ago. It is unusual among multi-dealer bookselling websites in being organised as a cooperative owned and directed by its booksellers. As booksellers ourselves, we are always happy to see other bookselling sites being run by actual booksellers. Welcome TomFolio; long may you prosper!

Will Google “retire” Google Books too?

A few days ago I received an email message from Google; or, to be more precise, from one of its many children, the one named Google Affiliate Network.  They were writing to let me know that Google now feels it has better things to do and will be closing GAN at the end of July.  They did not mention being sorry.  One of our regular advertisers pays us through GAN, so both of us will now have to move someplace else. A new and unexpected job has been added to my hopelessly long to-do list.  I will survive; but it makes me grumpy.

Google has been doing this sort of thing a lot lately.  Quite recently, Google Reader was similarly “retired” (that’s the word they used with GAN),  and iGoogle was retired a few weeks before that.  In fact, there is a long list of products that Google has launched (or bought), ballyhooed, grown bored with, and closed.  The editors at Slate even maintain a virtual graveyard where you can visit the Google family burial plots and leave flowers on the tombstones of the “retired” products and services you mourn the most.

All of which inevitably makes me wonder when the bell may also toll for Google Books.  Until recently that thought would never have crossed my mind.  Google always seemed like some rich uncle who could afford anything and always arrived for holidays with extravagant presents for everyone.  Cost was never an issue. He always grabbed the check .He did it because he could.  That’s just the way he was.

But now I see that sometimes uncle wants something in return. Its not just money, and not even gratitude and market dominence will always be enough.  At least that’s what seems to have been the case with Google Reader, which will leave a huge vacuum in its wake.   It’s hard to imagine that it could have been such a drag on the P&L that it needed to be killed.  If it had been a venture-backed start-up, with comparable traffic and market share, it could  surely have been sold for eight or nine figures.  It could have made money if it wanted to.  It was valuable and loved.  But Google did not even care to sell it.  Apparently it lost interest because it decided that RSS feeds were just too yesterday to bother with any more.  They were no longer cool, or hot, or a challenge.  So they are going to nail it in a coffin and put it in the ground.

It had not occured to me that Google might be fickle.  Until now.  And I probably wouldn’t think twice about it if the only things at stake were browser tools and internet utilities.   Making our vast printed heritage fully accesible to a digital future is, however, something altogether different.   The thought that this massive and essential project may be in the hands of a fickle steward has now given me pause.

So I have to ask, what happens if Google decides it has also become bored with old books?  They are, after all, the most thoroughly “yesterday” of all content media.  The idea of digitizing and indexing the holdings of most of the world’s major research libraries seemed breath-taking a decade ago. Now it seems merely necessary and inevitable.  The thrill and audacity of the project are now long past.  The innovation is done.  The glory has been claimed and spent.  All that remains is the slow and tedious execution, accompanied by a swelling chorus of  disatisfaction with the shoddy results.  And, of course, the expense.

I might be more optimistic if I believed that Google’s founders had originally understood the nature of the thing they wanted to create; that they had understood not just how it should be built, but why.   But I don’t.  Sergey Brin’s own defense of Google Books, published in a 2009 Op-Ed article in the New York Times, makes clear what a naive stranger he was to the world of libraries and out-of-print books.  Several  quotes from that fascinating piece could be called up as testimony here, but my favorite must certainly be this:

 “Today, if you want to access a typical out-of-print book, you have only one choice — fly to one of a handful of leading libraries in the country and hope to find it in the stacks.”

So, clearly, he didn’t have a clue.

Until it is retired I will, of course, continue to use Google Books and be ever thankful for the blessings it bestows.  But I do not expect to have it around for long; and I doubt, in the end, that it will matter.  The great march of digitization will still proceed. The work will be done regardless, and it will, in the end, be lead by people and institutions who understand the importance of what they are doing. They will not get bored.  I do love Google Books now, but will not regret it’s demise.

And neither, I suspect, will Sergey.  He has his own plane.

Massive update to viaLibri

The latest viaLibri upgrade has now been launched. It includes several new features and numerous enhancements that we believe will make viaLibri even more powerful and useful than ever. Much of what is new has come in response to suggestions received from our users. We hope our latest efforts have satisfied those requests. Other less visible improvements have also been made to improve performance and reliability. Work on these will remain ongoing. If you are one of our many regular visitors we hope you will be pleased with the new version of viaLibri we offer to you now. Please try it and let us know what you think. As soon as the last bugs have been eliminated from this new release we will start work again on the next set of improvements. As always, your continued feedback in that process will be greatly appreciated. Here is a summary of the most important new features you will find:

Book Search

  • Unwanted search results can be removed. It is now possible to remove items from your search results using a checkbox that appears with each item. You can check all the items that are not of interest and remove them from your results with one click of a button.
  • Improved translation. We are now able to identify the language used with each book description. If you click the “translate” button the text will automatically be translated into your native language, as recorded in your browser language preference settings. (Or you can choose a different language if you prefer). The scroll menu is no longer required and over 60 languages are available as both source and target.
  • Improved grouping algorithm. Some careful back-end modifications have further improved our ability to group multiple listings for the same book under a single entry. Repetitive entries are now significantly reduced..

Wants Manager / Libribot

  • Updated Display. We have significantly revised the way want records are displayed in the Want Manager. Readability and navigation are now much improved.
  • Note Field. All want records now include a “Note” field that can be used to record information you may want to save regarding an individual want. Bibliographic references, customer names and any other related details can now be saved for future reference.
  • Libribot Match removal. You can now delete records for any Libribot matches you may not want to save.
  • Match Results for Individual Wants. It is now possible to view a separate list of Libribot matches for each of your specific wants. These lists can be accessed directly from the Wants manager, or from the individual wants records that can be accessed from Libribot match results.
  • livre-rare-book. livre-rare-book has recently been added to libribot searches.

A New Feature for Premium Services Subscribers

  • Libristat. Summary valuation statistics are now generated from each manual search and can be displayed a the top of your results screen. Statistics include average, median, highest and lowest prices for all matching items along with a count of the total of unique matches made, excluding most duplicates. Statistics are recalculated when items are removed from results. Libristat is optional and can be easily turned on and off. It is only available to viaLibri Premium Services subscribers.