An Interview with Terry Belanger of the Rare Book School,<br>Recipient of $500,000 MacArthur Award
- by Michael Stillman
We turned to the topic of bookselling, in particular, the impact of the internet bookselling sites and eBay, half expecting a lament for the good old days when personal relationships dominated the field. Terry Belanger is too practical for that. The RBS is itself a buyer of books. Obtaining the best prices, indeed finding the books at all, are more important to the school than nostalgia. While the RBS may study books of very great value, the books it buys are more often reference works, not enormously valuable, but nonetheless rather obscure and hard to find. Here is where Mr. Belanger feels the internet has made its major impact. He distinguishes between less expensive material and the highly valuable rare and antiquarian books priced at the $1,000 and up level, where the changes have been less significant.
"Change has certainly come in the markets for less expensive books," the RBS Director explains. "At RBS, we buy books all the time both via eBay and via the sites collected by bookfinder.com. Indeed, we buy more than we've ever bought before because it's now so easy to do so. Here's a case in point.
"RBS has a very good open-shelf reference collection of modern books on the subjects treated in our courses. Last year, Mark Dimunation of the Library of Congress called it the best such collection in North America. Before the mid-1990s, the books in the various sections of this collection were assembled piecemeal, sometimes over a long period of time, while I trudged from bookshop to bookshop carrying lists and looking for the titles we needed in Binding, Collecting and the Book Trade, History of Printing and Publishing, Illustration, Letterforms, Papermaking, and Typography.
"In the late 1990s, I invited Roger Wieck, Curator of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts at the Morgan Library, to teach at RBS. University of Virginia's medieval manuscript collections are not strong, I had to admit, but I could tell him that at RBS we had recently assembled an excellent reference collection on his subject. We compiled a list of several hundred desirable titles, went after them via bookfinder.com, and $20,000 and three months later, had acquired virtually all of them. It would have taken us a decade or more to do the same thing before internet bookselling came along.
"Admittedly, it's increasingly hard to find knowledgeable used/academic/scholarly booksellers with open shops like George Allen (William H. Allen) in Philadelphia, or Bill Wreden (William P. Wreden) in Palo Alto. And that's a great loss. But I'm not sure how much internet sales have affected the sale of expensive old and rare books, especially those in the four-figure and higher range. The ABAA seems to be growing, not shrinking."