Early June has long been an important spot on the calendars of bibliophiles around the world. The original source of interest came from the fact that it always marked a unique concentration of opportunities to buy and sell books during a busy schedule of London book fairs and auctions. Those events alone were enough to lead a diverse flock of booksellers, collectors and other bibliophiles to converge annually on London, like swallows to Capistrano.
Recent years, however, have seen a greatly expanded scope and duration for what has now become known as Rare Books London. An impressive cohort of libraries and other bibliophilic groups have now joined their bookselling friends to organise an 18 day “fesitval of old and rare books” running from May 24 to June 10. In addition to the well-known book fairs and auctions, their schedule of events now includes 18 talks, 10 tours, and a special performance based on the writings of Samuel Johnson. More events will likely be added as the dates approach.
Information about everything that will be happening can be found on the RARE BOOKS LONDON website. Nearly all the events are free, but for many of them an advance ticket is required and spaces may be limited. It will be smart to reserve your places soon. Links for booking all the activities will be found on the website.
Rare Books London is a great idea and we are happy to be able to support it. If you think so too then you can also help support it and contribute to its success by posting, tweeting, pinning or just plain writing about it anywhere you can. After that I hope I will see you there.
A substantial theft of early and rare books has recently been reported by the Antiquarian Booksellers Association. Over 170 books from three booksellers are missing after an audacious roof-top break-in at a storage depot in suburban London. The books had been consigned for shipment to the California Book Fair scheduled for next week.
A list of missing books has been posted to the stolen books section of the ILAB website. Anyone being offered valuable early books under suspicious circumstances should check there before making any purchases. Contact details are also provided.
If you are a wandering bibliophile who will happen to be in New York City at the end of the month you should count yourself fortunate. Bibliography Week 2017 will be taking place there from January 23 to 28 and a there is a full schedule of events that you should find of interest. Lectures, exhibits and receptions are all on the list. The event does not appear to have its own website, but a full program of events will be found on the Grolier Club website.
We would love to be there ourselves, but that week we instead find ourselves in Stuttgart instead, where two major and long-lived book fairs will again be taking place.
It does not sound like it will be aweek for staying home.
We learned this morning that our colleague and friend Bob Fleck passed away yesterday. It is news whose sadness will be felt by a large number of the people that I know. In many ways he stood alone. I am quite sure that there is no one I have met who has made a greater practical contribution to the study of books in all their many aspects. The world of bibliophiles is greatly in his debt, myself among them.
Bob was the founder and determined force behind Oak Knoll Books, the world’s most important specialist in the broad subject generally referred to as “books on books.” He served his customers both as an expert in old and rare books and as a publisher and distributor of new ones. The publishing house he built became the first and last resort for bibliographic publications of all sorts. There are many important titles that would never have reached a printing press without Bob’s backing and help.
There can be few serious bibliophiles or booksellers whose reference shelves do not include numerous books that have passed through Bob’s office or shop in some form or another.
But the contributions to his colleagues were far from limited to the books he sold. He was continuously giving his time to the bookselling organisations he belonged to and supported. He served both the ABAA and the ILAB with terms as treasurer and president. It is interesting to note that, even though his speciality was focused almost entirely on items related to the printed book, Bob also oversaw the creation of three ILAB websites. He was instrumental in establishing the first ILAB book search engine and then was later active in helping establish the current metasearch which later replaced it. That was a project we worked on together and which might not have succeeded without his insights and support.
Beyond that, he also gave early and much appreciated help to viaLibri, becoming the first of our users to try advertising on our site. It was a very characteristic thing for him to do: looking to the future and supporting a colleague.
Bob’s accomplishments and generosity of spirit were appreciated across the full spectrum of bibliophiles, including librarians, scholars, collectors and, of course, his fellow booksellers. I expect to see a stream of tributes over the next days and weeks. As they are brought to my attention I will link to them here. For now, the first tribute appears, appropriately, on the ILAB website he did so much to create and sustain. You can read it below.
Our thoughts and deepest sympathies are now with Bob’s wife Millie and son Rob.
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.
Anyone who managed to struggle to the end of my recent post on “Searching For Books In Days Of Yore” may recall my reckless promise to continue on that topic at a later date. It was not an idle threat. So, ignoring the fact that I am probably the only person who actually finds this subject of interest, I will keep my promise and now pick up where I left off two weeks ago.
In case you hadn’t noticed, a lot of things about book searching have changed since the days I was describing in my previous post. Out of all of them, one fundamental change in particular needs to be mentioned first: before the internet came along, if you wanted a specific book that was out-of-print you almost always needed a bookseller to find it for you. There were no real options for doing it yourself. The periodicals which carried the necessary “books wanted” lists were all trade publications. Private buyers did not advertise in them. The search process was effectively closed to the retail customer. This meant that if a sought-after book was available somewhere the buyer who wanted it never actually came in contact with the dealer who had it in stock. At least two booksellers were required for every sale.
The internet made one of those booksellers superfluous.
Needless to say, this innovation did not generate enthusiasm from the booksellers who had once derived income from the inefficient system it destroyed. I have enormous sympathy for them, as I do for all the travel agents, encyclopedia salesmen, music store owners, directory publishers, newspaper delivery boys and members of any other occupations whose lives were similarly upended by the internet. The current popular term for this is “disruption.” It is a very Big Thing and has many people excited. Venture capitalists and technology entrepreneurs worship in the temple of disruption. They spend a good portion of their working day trying to cook up new ways to render useless the existing skills and practices that provide a living for the rest of us. Thus, when disruption came to the book searching business about 15 years ago there was no cheering from the trade. It is easy to understand why. For many of them it was the end of the world as they knew it.
As for myself, there is definitely a part of me that would be quite content if they called a halt to all this disruption and just let everyone go on with their business doing things as they had always done them before. I especially feel this way when I think about all my fellow booksellers who once made a living helping their customers find books in the pre-digital age. In fact, I must confess that I ran a book search service myself once upon a time. It was how I got my start in the book business, even before my wife and I opened our first shop. I did not know then that I was a dinosaur, and was happy not to know it. Things seemed just fine the way they were.
But today, for better or worse, I have to count myself among the disrupters. It would be pointless to pretend otherwise. And if I stand in that camp and consider the question of book searching I feel compelled to do it from the perspective of the buyer rather than the seller. When I do that, this is what I see:
-Before the internet, if you discovered an out-of-print book that you thought might be of interest it generally took at least a week or two just to find out if there might be a copy available somewhere for sale.
After the internet you could find this out in seconds.
– Before the internet you might learn about a book that you thought could be of interest to you, but have no idea of what it might cost you if a copy were found. The only way to find out would be to put a friendly bookseller to the expense and trouble of searching for it for you. Since there was always good chance it might cost more than you could afford or want to pay, it was likely that you would only decide to do this if it were a book you absolutely had to have it.
After the internet you could quickly check the price and availability of any book without expense, embarrassment or commercial engagement.
-Before the internet, the pool of available books to search from was limited to the available stock of those booksellers who took the time and trouble to quote from published want lists. This was only a tiny fraction of the total books available in the marketplace.
After the internet, the pool of findable books exploded as it became possible for booksellers to upload their entire inventory online and leave it there until sold. At the same time, the actual quoting of a book became unnecessary to sell it. These two things made it dramatically easier to locate a reasonable copy of a wanted book.
– Before the internet the reach of want lists rarely went beyond national or linguistic boundaries. The periodicals that carried them had limited distribution beyond the countries they were published in, and quoters rarely saw profit in mailing out quotes at international postage rates. This made searching for books published in other countries or languages especially difficult.
After the internet the marketplace became international. Metasearch sites brought books together from booksellers around the world. Customers were no longer limited to looking for foreign books primarily from the stocks of booksellers in their own country.
– Before the internet, most of the book descriptions offered to search services provided little more than a coded description of format and condition. Things like “8vo, v.g./dj.” were often all you knew about the copy you were offered to buy,
After the internet descriptions became fuller and more useful. Many copies were even illustrated with photos, and if photos were necessary and not already displayed online it was always possible to ask for them to be sent as email attachments.
Of course, the most significant change of all was in the price of books. Before the internet, common books purchased through search services were usually quite expensive relative to what they would normally sell for anywhere else.
After the internet, common books became cheap.
I could go on, but there is no need. The point is made. Disruption came to the world of book searching and the result, for the consumers at least, was a dramatic change for the better. What was once impossible became possible. What was once difficult became simple. What was once costly became cheap. And the vast availability of books online, coupled with new and powerful tools to search for them, enabled serious bibliophiles to pursue their interests in ways that were unimaginable two decades before.
Collectors, of course, already know this – the younger ones in particular. I hear it from them often. They are happy. Many of them have come to realize that they are living in a golden age. The booksellers of my generation, however, are not all convinced. I still hear many of them complaining about how heavy and shiny everything has become. I try to argue with them sometimes, but I never win.
[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.