This past month I invited a group of fifteen friends and acquaintances for a discussion and dinner at Mohonk Mountain House in New York’s Ulster County. The subject was, with respect to books and history, where are we and where are we going and I asked everyone to offer 5 minutes of perspective and opinion. Included were collectors and dealers, appraisers, librarians, and a historical interpreter. It was enlightening.
We turned out to have two perspectives on collectible material. For collectors, collecting institutions and dealers the object is the objective while for reference libraries, interested individuals, students and historians it’s the information. There is of course crossover but the two groups are rather distinct.
Interest in content appears, by a factor of three or four to one, to be the dominant perspective of the world at large. Ann M. Gordon, the Ulster Country historian reflected on questions she receives from students and explained how she directs them to sources to unearth the facts themselves. Their inquiries are often for schoolwork. In some sense she’s a reference librarian to those inquiring by phone and on the net. The numbers involved are substantial.
At the Huguenot Historical Society and the Elting Memorial Library who receive inquiries [neither attended this group] that require research will incur an expense to be paid by the person making the request. For them research has become a business and a way to deflect the casual and possibly time-consuming inquiry. So too Ulster County records in Kingston can be searched for a fee.
If interest in information is the dominant factor by volume, interest in actual examples is what drives dealers, collecting libraries and collectors to pursue and spend serious money. As a population they are small, a quarter at most of the market at large, mostly men and almost always past forty. Their interests are in importance, condition, value and price and they seek to own the originals that the market at large simply wants to study. For dealers it’s a business, for institutions a mission, for collectors an avocation often with obsessive underpinnings.