Collecting: A Changing Perspective
By Bruce McKinney
Two thousand and nine was a difficult year. What began as a succession of acute financial problems experienced around the world has become a chronic condition that dims, by degree, our views and expectations for the next few years. For people who live and die with books it was been particularly unsettling to see committed collectors and institutions struggle with budgets. The will is strong, the capability diminished. This is not the first time this has happened but it has been long enough that we grew complacent that it could happen again. This time round the recovery will be different as increasing transparency alters not only value but preferences.
Buyers now routinely search for material on line. They haunt listing sites, auctions and eBay, often now in preference to visiting shops and shows. Not so many years ago collectors routinely visited dealers and keenly anticipated shows for the unusual opportunities they presented. Today dealer material is increasingly on line and while the material at shows remains compelling it's no longer only available at shows. Special copies and others like them are online and increasingly easy to find. This is the difference that a decade has made. In those ten years the selling, acquiring and collecting of printed material has undergone a seismic shift. A field that once thrived on obscurity becomes increasingly transparent.
All this information, not surprisingly, changes not only what and where material is offered but also what is bought and paid. Rarity is increasingly defined by appearances on the web rather than by unilateral dealer declarations sometimes quoting out-of-date sources. Rarity it turns out is a moving target easily assessed online using listing sites to determine present availability and the AED [The Americana Exchange Database] the past appearances. All this information changes more than what acquirers pay. It also changes what they buy.
Today collecting is becoming a variation on exceptionalism. Some purse the exceptionally important and rare in superb condition, others narrowly defined subjects with an intensity that has become possible only as the internet made the material visible. In between, these two forms of collecting, there continues to be the traditional range of intensity, commitment and knowledge for book collecting. But what was once a collecting range most focused at its center has become a field where the deeply committed reside at the extremes. So when dealers remark that there are fewer collectors they are referring to the declining presence of buyers in the middle because these are the collectors that dealers traditionally served: those that collect generally, often under the guidance of dealers. Collectors today however tend to collect at the edges: pursuing exceptional material or deep collections on narrow, often obscure subjects. In both cases they are independent and tending to be self-sufficient.