Rare Book Monthly

Articles - September - 2009 Issue

The Printed Word: a shrinking footprint

Progress

Adapt or Die


Information, its processing, distribution, search and retrieval is passing through the eye of the needle, to paraphrase the New Testament, the old structures of information giving way to the new: books into databases into full text searches - accessible online by computer and phone.

It turns out society's commitment is to information, not to form, and this is tough news for all things printed. The group, that prefers books to electronic data, is shrinking, the old forms ever less supported, the new forms gathering adherents, support, new applications and momentum, the implications for the world of printed material profound.

The world of print divides into sellers, acquirers and services and each segment faces unique challenges.

The sellers: dealers, online databases, auctions and eBay; the buyers: libraries, collectors and preservationists, and the resources: online databases.

For each of these segments the implications and impact are different. For preservationists the web causes a reconsideration of what constitutes preservation. Some will be satisfied with electronic text, others with electronic facsimiles. Traditionalists will insist on actual copies.

Libraries face a changing world where remotely accessible online resources and traffic are exploding and foot traffic is declining. Rare book rooms are a library tradition but are costly and only infrequently used. In the search for budget the rare book rooms will be called upon again and again to remake their case. Ultimately declining use will trump tradition and many libraries substantially de-accession. Sales and transfers on a huge scale are inevitable.

The listing sites too are in a perilous state. They are very large and increasingly expensive for those who list. Someone is going to create a unified database and provide for free what the listing sites charge for. Look for free listings in exchange for credit card processing.

eBay seems to have lost confidence in what it does best: sell at auction. For books it is shifting emphasis to a listing model. It looks like a classic case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Dealers sell in many ways: by catalogue, online, at shows and sometimes in their own shops. It works for some and is a declining equation for others. For years it was possible to do well simply by being in the game. These days you need great material, great descriptions and great prices. It also helps if you have a great location.

Auctions are a growing presence. AE, in its upcoming auctions, covers 160 venues and that number is increasing. The market is becoming transparent and in time favors lower commission sellers. But that is years away. For now, the world is still adjusting to the idea of a single universal search and auctions as an industry.

The great mystery is the collector. Dealers want to sell to them. Libraries want their interest and involvement and some day possibly their collections. Collectors however are increasingly shunning traditional venues in favor of personally invented approaches that are more based on preferences, experience and operating systems than time efficient logic. For a compelling in-person presentation it is difficult but possible to get collectors to come out into the light but if so but they'll want a neutral presentation that explains how to collect efficiently. As to what they buy and who they buy from, that is their business and they seem to want to keep it that way. Who tells the story and how they tell it may well spell the difference in whether dealers a generation from now can look back in relief or regret. The new collector today is simply collecting in new ways. They are still out there but they have more choices and are less visible.

Over the next six months I'll interview a representative cross-section of participants in each category and write about their perspectives on the future of book collecting. Certainly the field has a future. What I want to find out is whether it will be as glorious ahead as it has been in the past. It will certainly be different.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann, wallpaper sample book, circa 1919. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Archive from a late office of the Breuer & Smith architectural team, New York, 1960-70s. $3,500 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> William Morris, <i>The Story of the Glittering Plain or the Land of Living Men,</i> illustrated by Walter Crane, Kelmscott Press, Hammersmith, 1894. $2,500 to $3,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Gustave Doré, <i>La Sainte Bible selon la Vulgate,</i> Tours, 1866. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Gustav Klimt & Max Eisler, <i>Eine Nachlese,</i> complete set, Vienna, 1931. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>Eric Allatini & Gerda Wegener, <i>Sur Talons Rouges,</i> with original watercolor by Wegener, Paris, 1929. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>C.P. Cavafy, <i>Fourteen Poems,</i> illustrated & signed by David Hockney, London, 1966. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Jean Midolle, <i>Spécimen des Écritures Modernes...</i>, Strasbourg, 1834-35. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>E.A. Seguy, <i>Floréal: Dessins & Coloris Nouveaux,</i> Paris, 1925. $3,000 to $4,000.
  • <b>Bonhams: Results from Fine Books and Manuscripts on March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> BEETHOVEN, LUDWIG VAN. Autograph Manuscript sketch-leaf part of the score of the Scottish Songs, "Sunset" Op. 108 no 2. [Vienna, February 1818]. Inscribed by Alexander Wheelock Thayer. SOLD for $131,250
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> Violin belonging to Albert Einstein, presented to him by Oscar H. Steger, 1933. SOLD for $516,500
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> EINSTEIN, ALBERT. Autograph Letter Signed ("Papa") to his son Hans Albert, discussing his involvement with the atomic bomb, September 2, 1945. SOLD for $106,250
    <b>Bonhams: Results from Fine Books and Manuscripts on March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> HAMILTON, ALEXANDER. Autograph Letter Signed, to Baron von Steuben, with extensive notes of Von Steuben's aide Benjamin Walker, June 12, 1780. SOLD for $16,250
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> NEWTON, ISAAC. Autograph Manuscript in Latin, being detailed instructions on making the philosopher's stone. 8 pp. 1790s. SOLD for $275,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> 1869 Inauguration Bible of President Ulysses S. Grant. SOLD for $118,750
  • <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> E.H. SHEPARD, Original drawing for A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner.<br>$40,000-60,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> BERNARD RATZER, Plan of the City of New York in North America, surveyed in the years 1766 & 1767. $80,000-100,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> THOMAS JEFFERSON, Autograph letter signed comparing Logan, Tecumseh, and Little Turtle to the Spartans. Monticello: 15 February 1821. $14,000-18,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN C. FREMONT, Narrative of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains, in the Year 1842.. Abridged edition, the only one containing the folding map From the Sporting Library of Arnold “Jake” Johnson. $3,000-5,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> ZANE GREY, Album containing 94 large format photographs of Grey and party at Catalina Island, Arizona, and fishing in the Pacific. From the Sporting Library of Arnold “Jake” Johnson. $5,000-$8,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> WILLIAM COMBE, A History of Madeira ... illustrative of the Costumes, Manners, and Occupations of the Inhabitants. produced by Ackermann in 1821; From the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> ERIC TAVERNER, Salmon Fishing... One of 275 copies signed by Taverner, published in 1931,From the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN WHITEHEAD, Exploration of Mount Kina Balu, North Borneo. Whitehead reached the high point of Kinabalu in 1888. Part of a major group of travel books from the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN LONG, Voyages and Travels of an Indian Interpreter and Trader, describing the Manners and Customs of the North American Indians... The first edition of 1791. $3,000-$5,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> SAMUEL BECKETT, Stirrings Still. This, Beckett’s last work of fiction with original lithographs by Le Brocquy, limited to 200 copies signed by the author and the artist. From the Estate of Howard Kaminsky.. $1,500-$2,500

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions