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

  • <center><b>Swann Auction Galleries<br>View Our Record Breaking Results</b>
    <b>Swann:</b> Scott Joplin, <i>Treemonisha: Opera in Three Acts,</i> New York, 1911. Sold March 24 — $40,000.
    <b>Swann:</b> Louisa May Alcott, autograph letter signed, 1868. Sold June 2 — $23,750.
    <b>Swann:</b> Anne Bradstreet, <i>Several Poems Compiled with Great Variety of Wit and Learning, full of Delight,</i> Boston, 1758. Sold June 2 — $21,250.
    <b>Swann:</b> William Shakespeare, <i>Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies. Published according to the true Originall Copies. The Second Impression,</i> London, 1632. Sold May 5 — $161,000.
    <center><b>Swann Auction Galleries<br>View Our Record Breaking Results</b>
    <b>Swann:</b> John Bachmann, <i>Panorama of the Seat of War,</i> New York, 1861-62. Sold June 23 — $35,000.
    <b>Swann:</b> Charlotte Bronte, <i>Jane Eyre,</i> first edition, London, 1847. Sold June 16 — $23,750.
    <b>Swann:</b> Elihu Vedder, <i>Simple Simon, His Book,</i> 1913. Sold June 9 — $12,350.
    <b>Swann:</b> Frederick Catherwood, <i>Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan,</i> London, 1844. Sold April 7 — $37,500.
  • <center><b>University Archives<br>Rare Autographs, Manuscripts & Books<br>August 17, 2022</b>
    <b>University Archives, Aug. 17:</b> George Washington ADS, One of the Earliest in His Hand, A Survey from 1752, the Same Year He Inherited Mount Vernon.
    <b>University Archives, Aug. 17:</b> Rare JFK Signed Check & Transmittal Letter During Campaign for 1956 VP Nomination, Both BAS Slabbed; Possibly A Unique Combo!
    <b>University Archives, Aug. 17:</b> Daniel Boone Signed Receipt as VA Delegate; During His 1st of 3 Terms, Boone Was Kidnapped by British Forces Gunning for Gov. T. Jefferson & Other Legislators.
    <center><b>University Archives<br>Rare Autographs, Manuscripts & Books<br>August 17, 2022</b>
    <b>University Archives, Aug. 17:</b> Benjamin Franklin Signed Receipt for “Pennsylvania Gazette,” Important & Beautifully Displayed
    <b>University Archives, Aug. 17:</b> Lincoln & His Civil War Cabinet: 8 Signatures, Beautifully Presented!
    <b>University Archives, Aug. 17:</b> G.A. Custer ALS from Fort Lincoln, Dakota Territory to Capt. Yates, Who Also Died at Little Bighorn, Re: Acquiring “good horses” from Kentucky for 7th Cavalry.
    <center><b>University Archives<br>Rare Autographs, Manuscripts & Books<br>August 17, 2022</b>
    <b>University Archives, Aug. 17:</b> Jefferson Davis ALS: “the negroes are humble and generally inclined to cling to their masters…neither crop or stock could be protected from their thieving” – Incredible!
    <b>University Archives, Aug. 17:</b> Lee Harvey Oswald Signed Letter: “if we finally get back to the states…maybe we’ll…settle in Texas,” Warren Commission Exhibit.
    <b>University Archives, Aug. 17:</b> Babe Ruth First Edition Biography Signed Just Months Before His Death, Excellent Signature!
    <center><b>University Archives<br>Rare Autographs, Manuscripts & Books<br>August 17, 2022</b>
    <b>University Archives, Aug. 17:</b> “B Arnold” ANS on Pre-Revolutionary War Promissory Note Dating From His Days as a New Haven Merchant
    <b>University Archives, Aug. 17:</b> Bob Dylan Signed LP “Blonde on Blonde” with Jeff Rosen COA.
    <b>University Archives, Aug. 17:</b> Marilyn Monroe & Joe DiMaggio Signed Checks, Handsomely Displayed.

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