A Chill in September: Books in Hard Times
Given that the principal driver of higher prices over the past fifty years has been aggressive buying by institutions and that they face a triad of issues: reduced budgets, internal competition from advocates for investments in electronic presentation, and declining foot traffic - many libraries will scale back further investments in rare books while others will simply sell duplicates, narrow their focus and even in extreme cases sell their holdings. Even single institutions de-accessioning in the United States will undercut the market. While the European market has a substantial appetite for important books the dollar denominated market has been noticeably weaker.
In downturns dealers have historically toughed it out and the strategy has been effective. Good books have always been hard to replace so it has almost always been the right strategy to wait for someone willing to pay up. What seems to be different this time around are three factors:
The auction market is not confirming the value of lesser collectibles;
The market is expotentially more transparent for those with the interest and skills to look. It is increasingly possible to identify more copies and more related material thus increasing the pool of collecting possibilities and making it possible for buyers to at minimum choose and, depending on the style and personality of the collector, to negotiate.
Collections, which a generation ago, were often 'high points,' are becoming more focused on minutely detailed material that is satisfying to unearth but rarely expensive. The market for such collections has yet to be established but, because the costs are low, the net financial risks are also low. Such collections may eventually be given to institutions.
What participants took home from the all day discussion was probably confirmation of whatever ideas they brought. Librarians who brought caution probably went home cautious. Dealers who have decided to ride out the downturn received encouragement to do so. Collectors heard that life will go on. No one really said "you're not in Oz anymore."
All perspectives are to some extent correct. Libraries are facing tectonic shifts, collectors increasing possibilities, dealers serious challenges. It's a new day and the Grolier did as they have done before. They provided an opportunity for perspectives to be expressed and evaluated and as a result we all have something to think about.
Bill Reese's comments are posted on his site: