Book Collecting Clubs and Associations
By Bruce McKinney
Look out upon the fields of book, manuscript and ephemera collecting and from a distance you can see generations of amber waves of grain, a seamless continuum extending in memory from Gutenberg out into a never-ending future of collectors yet unborn that one day will bid and buy, accumulate and organize, material that matters to them. The history of collecting is clear and the future of collecting should be but changes in what we know and how we know are so quickly engulfing the field that today's more senior collectors find it difficult to relate and explain the world of collecting they inhabit to the next generation that sees that world in very different terms.
They both hold important pieces of the collecting equation and no doubt suffer from declining access to each other. The clubs and associations of the books, manuscripts and ephemera fields have long provided access for collectors, book craft artisans, historians, librarians and dealers to meet in an environment of shared interest but increasingly the clubs are graying, the next generation too often a no show, the very futures of some clubs less certain.
Recently I spoke with an interesting cross section of representatives of many of the leading book collecting clubs in the United States and Canada as I sought to understand the future of collecting in the field of works on paper. The clubs are one of the seven communities that comprise the works on paper universe. Listing sites, auctions and eBay, online databases, dealers, libraries and preservationists are the others.
The good news is that such clubs are found in every sizable place and that these clubs are determined to bridge the divide to the next generation. Their love of the field and their abiding interest in the material convinces them that the next generation, if reached and encouraged, will join them and in time help their clubs to further evolve as they have always evolved to remain relevant to the changing methods, styles and parameters of collecting. Every generation has faced challenges but perhaps the challenge for the current generation of club leadership is the greatest in memory simply because the internet increases possibilities for collecting while lowering clubs' visibility. Only a generation ago clubs could distribute information to shops and expect a flow of interested parties to move in their direction. Today such shops are far less common as the business has inexorably shifted to the net, to catalogues, and to conversation by phone and email. Face to face meetings are less common and decline has weakened club access to new members. Collecting, ever an iconoclastic enterprise, in the age of the internet, encourages monk-like focus that further reduces in-person contact.
For the clubs this has generally translated into declining membership that has in turn caused the majority of clubs to broaden their definition of eligibility. Book clubs were once primarily the province of book collectors. Today many clubs struggle to keep collectors in the majority even as membership, has declined. Binders, dealers, printers, and craftsmen now comprise the majority in many clubs. And to the extent that collectors are a significant presence the dominant characteristic of club members is hair color - gray to white.