What we can learn about book collecting from Joel Munsell

- by Bruce E. McKinney

Albany, New York where Joel Munsell made his reputation

Of the 148 separate published works 84 show only a single copy and the balance, 64 titles, multiple copies of which 17 have 5 or more examples available. John William Wallace's 1863 "An Address delivered at the Celebration by the New York Historical Society," is today's most common item with 12 copies available. At the same time we need to remember that 95% of the Munsell items show no copies at all. By adding up the print runs of all ABE items for which information is provided in Munselliana and then dividing by the number of such titles [76] I find the average print run is 1,079. Next I multiple this by the 3,044 items that I believe Munsell printed and we confirm he was no friend of trees because he printed 3,132,275 +/- copies over his career. And how many of them were on ABE recently? The answer: three hundred and forty-two including those with multiple copies available. This is 1 of every 9,159 copies he printed. Wow! What does this mean?

How can some items be present in 5 or more copies and 95% not be present at all? I have no absolute answers, just opinions.

My first impression is that, while books have found a home on the net, ephemera occupies a less certain position. Sellers decide what to post. They create an entry order based both on their own experience and what is implied by others in their listings on the net. Munsell may not be making the cut. Much of his production is thin. Most of what he printed was bound in paper, not boards and was slim as Betty Davis at the beginning of her career. To the dealer wondering "what can I charge and who will buy it?" I suspect the answer is often "Not much and I don't know." These questions are probably always pushing Munsell pamphlets and the like to the back of the line.

The second issue is that many sellers look to what other sellers have to say to get the descriptive language for their listings. Ninety-five percent of this material isn't listed. It doesn't look particularly important and no one else is offering a copy. How can you describe an item you can not place in context?

Dealers dominate the listings. Both what they put up and don't put up defines everyone's understanding of what is collectible and available. For Munsell material to be broadly visible implies that other similarly rare and comparably collectible material would also be visible on the net. But unless such material encourages new collectors to collect it could potentially divide the same pie into smaller slices. There are a large number of potential listings but they can be potentially dilutive. Some dealer groups may see this as counter to their interests.

My guess is that this material is around but simply not recognized. How much of this material will come out over the next five years? Mike Stillman and I disagree about this. Mike believes that about 20% will appear at least once while my guess is at least 50%. I believe the material sits just over the horizon and, with education and time, it will emerge. How many people want it is another question.