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’s Catalog 170 Great Books and Photos. Please inquire for a copy.</b>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Exodus 10:10 to 16:15. Complete Biblical scroll sheet in Hebrew, a Torah scroll panel. Middle East, ca. 10th or 11th century.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Copernicus Refuted. (Astronomy.). Scientific manuscript of a course of studies at Collège de la Trinité, Lyon. 1660s.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Israel’s War of Independence and the Early Days of the IDF. 58 photographs presented to Israel Ber, IDF officer and later convicted spy.
    <b>19th Century Shop’s Catalog 170 Great Books and Photos. Please inquire for a copy.</b>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Early Unpublished Darwin letter on the races of man. Autograph Letter Signed [to Henry Denny]. Down, Kent, June 1, [1844].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Classic Image of American Slavery. Kimball, M. H. <i>Emancipated Slaves</i>. New York: George Hanks, 1863.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> (Underground Railroad.) Scaggs, Isaac. Important Runaway Slave Poster: $500 Reward Ran away, or decoyed from the subscriber…
  • <b>Bonhams, inviting consignments for Sep 27:</b> Newton. <i>Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica</i>. London, 1687.
    <b>Bonhams, inviting consignments for Sep 27:</b> Josephus. <i>De antiquitate Judaica.</i> Lubeck, 1475-76.
    <b>Bonhams, inviting consignments for Sep 27:</b> Carlerius. <i>Sporta fragmentorum, Sportula fragmentorum</i>. Brussels, 1478-79.
    <b>Bonhams, inviting consignments for Sep 27:</b> Fridolin. <i>Der Schatzbehalter</i>. Nuremberg, 1491.
    <b>Bonhams, inviting consignments for Sep 27:</b> Pinder. <i>Der beschlossen gart des rosenkrantz marie</i>. Nuremberg, 1505.
    <b>Bonhams, inviting consignments for Sep 27:</b> Isidorus Hispalensis. <i>Synonyma de Homine</i>. Nuremberg, 1470-71.
    <b>Bonhams, inviting consignments for Sep 27:</b> Durer. Sammelband including <i>Underweysung der messing</i>. Nuremberg, 1525-29.
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries: Fall 2017 Auction Schedule</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 19: 19th & 20th Century Prints & Drawings</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 28: Printed & Manuscript Americana</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 5: African-American Fine Art</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries: Fall 2017 Auction Schedule</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 17: Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 19:<br>Art & Storytelling: Photographs & Photobooks</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 26: Rare & Important Travel Posters</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries: Fall 2017 Auction Schedule</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 2:<br>Old Master Through Modern Prints</b>
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    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 16: Contemporary Art</b>
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  • <b>Announcing a new Books for Sale platform hosted by Biblio</b>
    <b>List your books simultaneously on Rare Book Hub and Biblio</b>

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