Not so long ago books were essential to learning. They were long embraced for their content and visual appeal. They were the basic tool for learning to read, one third of the essential threesome that comprised literacy – reading, writing and arithmetic. Reading of course remains essential but it turns out books are not. There are more efficient ways to share text today and the world is moving on.
The conversion to electronic text is reducing the number of books printed and seems to be having some negative effect on rare book collecting. But overall, while books will occupy a less central role in the future their past primacy would seem to ensure their continuing collectability. We are of course also dealing with the increasing visibility of printed copies on the major selling sites and today in many cases available copies swamp current interest - leading to thinner markets and falling prices, the sheer numbers now important factors in collectability.
The impact of electronic texts on collecting will be an open question for some time to come. For serious collectors one can expect they will emerge, as they have for five centuries, to pursue subjects that appeal to them. They were collecting in the 18th and 19th centuries and they will be collecting a thousand years into the future. There are simply enough very smart people who see in the inner workings of the works on paper field opportunities to build collections based on personal perspectives.
Always present yes but collectors have also always been rare and every age has had a few paragons to illuminate collecting possibilities for the rest of us. In the 19th century into the first quarter of the 20th century there were dozens. In the 20th century dozens more, their ideas and goals evolving as the field became increasingly quantified.
For myself the world is and always has been in constant motion. Books, by comparison, are stationary, their contents fixed, the differences between what was written and what we know or today surmise an understandable, definable difference that reflects on rate of change. I am speaking of course about collections on a subject where a multitude of perspectives in aggregate create a consensus view. Other collectors will have a different view that reflects their thinking.
A single collection is interesting, a group of collections almost scientific for comparison purposes. Change is sometimes obvious and great discoveries, inventions, new theories and ideas all collected as first appearances. But for many collectible concepts the subjects evolve slowly, often much more slowly than the world at large evolves. In this case the transposition of regionally evolving ideas in comparison/contrast provide suggestions as to underlying sentiment. I always found the local comparison to outside ideas useful to understanding the world I grew up in. Facts and statements in isolation can be misleading, the comparison of local and broader perspectives illuminating. That my parents, as newspaper publishers, lamented for decades this disconnect certainly heightened my awareness of this difference and materially authored my pursuit of evidence of change in local knowledge and opinion. It is what I collect today.
It turns out that serious book collectors have always been rare, most highly competent intellectually, and if I had to guess I would suggest that many share my skill set, the ability to see/feel the world of ideas in motion. Such people are predisposed to collect for in their collection they see so much that most of the rest of the world simply misses. It makes collecting exciting, not to mention intellectually gratifying.
And it suggests there will always be collecting. Subjects and prices will vary but the collecting impulse, in the right circumstances will be the “A” game for many of the best minds.