History on the Cheap
By Bruce McKinney
Recently I searched Google for information about a book I purchased this past month - "A History of the Minisink Region" by Charles E. Stickney. It's the gift to posterity of two men who published it in 1867 and whose names are not linked to other known printings [of books]. This volume is their single banner to carry their names to future generations and until recently were holding on by a thread. They have the interesting names Finch Coe and I. F. Guiwits and together make the perfect Google search term. It's how I found them in the first place.
Original copies of this title are uncommon. In the OCLC only eight are recorded and yet on Abe recently there were four, none higher than $40, a mid-range eBay realization. I already owned a copy and was prompted to buy a second copy for $30.
Among the Google search results was a link to The Open Library where 234,857 fully searchable electronic copies of myriad titles are available in a format that presents the material as it actually appears. For those involved with old and rare books this is a useful tool - the opportunity to see real copies, to compare margins and confirm pagination. For those who are writing descriptions it's also the chance to conduct instant research to gather useful details. The world of books has always been divided between sellers who describe only the copy and those who also tell its story. This is a tool for those who have learned you must tell a good story to sell a great book. To make the research easy The Open Library provides a text search that is similar to Google's book search though their format provides a better experience.
Whatever you may be thinking about the quality of online presentations this one will surprise most readers. It surpasses what I have seen elsewhere online and does it in a way that is effective both for those who value the book as object and/or as information source. As presented - it is the book - opened flat. The pages turn one at time in the way you expect. They are in the original type, in look, face and font. To read these copies is to read the original text.
To the right of the open book is a search box to identify references in the text. Where found, a page marker is inserted and the reader can then move from marker to marker to read highlighted entries. It's satisfying and particularly helpful for books that have minimal or non-existent indexes. For book collectors it's a way to preview material you are considering to buy or bid on.
All this said, the text can be a bit difficult to read and varies from one example to the next. For the titles I searched it's possible to download PDFs. You can also order a freshly printed custom copy or install a free DjVu reader, customized software that further enhances the online image.
For dealers in important and high end material it's possible to contribute entire copies [through scans] to The Open Library. The dealer retains both the original copy and the opportunity to link the fully electronic version to their selling description. Only a few years ago this was considered, because of cost, a remarkable but essentialy unatainableable possibility. Today it is a matter of will. The money is no longer material.
The Open Library is free to all who wish to do research.
For those who may want to post material in its full text form a subscription is required. For individuals the cost is $495 for the first year and $125 a year thereafter for support and upgrades. Organizations can subscribe to make upload access available to members. If there is sufficient interest AE can obtain a license for its members to access this remarkable service.
Here is a link to the site: http://openlibrary.org.