Fighting Over the Scraps

by William S. Reese

(A Talk Delivered at the Harvard Conference on Rare Book and Manuscript Libraries in the 21st Century, 1992)

The foremost concern of the rare book marketplace today, and I believe for some years to come, is that of supply. For any market to survive and prosper, it must have ample merchandise. Rare books have become scarce. The trade is driven by the economics of scarcity, and the appearance of any cache of nice books collected in earlier, fatter days provokes an expensive scramble to get a piece of the diminishing pie. The existence of this state of affairs is due largely to the role institutions have played in the rare book world since World War II, and whether or when it changes will depend largely on what happens to rare book and manuscript libraries in the future. We are already in a period of great change, which I think will significantly redistribute the rare book resources of the United States.

First, let me quickly review the antiquarian rare book market of the last half century. At the end of World War II there was an extraordinary glut of material available. A long depression, followed by a destructive war which turned the continent - and libraries - of Europe upside down, threw a seemingly inexhaustible stream of books and manuscripts into the market. Many of them flowed to the United States, whose purchasing power reigned supreme. The primary beneficiaries were American institutional collections, which entered on a quarter century of wholesale acquisition, in some cases with governmental subsidy. Library buying dominated the marketplace. Institutions also benefited from government policy indirectly, since the tax laws made gifts of appreciated assets very favorable to donors. Privately formed collections were far more likely to be absorbed into libraries than return to the market.

he wholesale buying by the libraries drew the trade like flies to honey. Acquisition funds were the primary lure, but there were other attributes of the institutional business which made it appealing. They were democratic: addresses were easy to obtain, contacts were easy to make, and the snobbery which often made it difficult to compete against old established firms in the private market was seldom a factor. They were knowledgeable: the librarians were often well versed book people who did not require long explanations but shared an enthusiasm for the material with the dealers. Nor was the expense of an open shop necessary, since a dealer could more effectively sell to an institution through catalogues. The libraries almost had to buy. Budgets were in place and had to be spent. They didn't argue and bargain. The institutional market of these years was a major factor in altering the very nature of the trade. Issuing catalogues and writing letters while maintaining a smaller stock, the specialist bookseller could operate with much lower overhead than a generalist maintaining a walk-in store. When I entered the rare book world twenty years ago, one would still hear of some real grand slams - entire catalogues purchased by institutions in a hurry. Not surprisingly, many booksellers abandoned the multiple problems of an open shop, and most newcomers to the trade (including myself) never even thought of one as part of the business.

In the mid-1970s, radical changes took place in the rare book market. Most importantly, this is when the scales tipped from a buyer's to a seller's market, as the absorption of material by the institutions ended the glut and radically shrank the available pool of books and manuscripts in private hands. At the same time, much of the governmental funding of retrospective acquisitions ended, and rising energy prices and inflation caused the cost of maintaining existing facilities to skyrocket. A series of tax decisions, from the Nixon papers case to the 1986 tax bill, sharply reduced the attractiveness of institutional donation by authors and collectors. Since 1975, the role of institutions as forces in the rare book market has declined precipitously, with one supremely important exception: now they have most of the books and manuscripts, and the private buyers - the dealers and collectors - are fighting over the scraps. All parties - institutions, dealers and collectors, are locked in an ever-tightening spiral of less material and higher prices.

Let us step back for a moment and ask a fundamental question: What do the parties concerned, both public and private, want all this stuff for? What are the motivations for amassing collections of books and manuscripts? I would submit that there are two underlying themes: the accessibility of text and the preservation of icons. At one end of the spectrum are the electronic images on my computer screen or the paperback I take to the beach; on the other end is the Gutenberg Bible. Most books and manuscripts are some combination of text and icon, appealing to us in both an intellectual and a physical sense. Indeed, most of us would agree that the physical aspects of the book relate directly to our perception of the text.

Until fairly recently, there was little divergence between these two ideas. In the period when many of the great rare book libraries in this country were founded, preservation of the icon and availability of the text went hand in hand. Successive waves of mechanical reproduction have increasingly separated the two, and all of us assume that this trend will accelerate exponentially. We can foresee a time when technology will store all of the words of the world in a box.

These trends, I think, will have very little effect on private collectors in the coming decades. Private book collecting is almost wholly concerned with the preservation of icons. I don't mean by this that book collectors are not well read or familiar with the subjects they collect, or even that they don't read their rare books; in fact, over my career as a dealer, I've been surprised by how many of them do. However, if text were the primary consideration, most collectors could obtain access to it easily and comparatively inexpensively these days. Their real pursuit is the icon. The premium attached to such factors as condition and association copies makes this clear. Of course, such sub-categories as press books or bindings are wholly concerned with the physical qualities of the object. The monetary value of such an icon as a Washington letter is unharmed by repeated publication, in a market that only private collectors can now afford. Indeed, the most reprinted political utterance of the United States, the Declaration of Independence, is among the most expensive of printed icons.

Antiquarian booksellers are equally committed to the iconic significance of the material they sell. If all institutional participation ceased, the booksellers would survive, although their ways of doing business would change sharply. Then material would simply circulate between private collector and dealer or auction house, and back again, much as books did up to the mid-nineteenth century before the advent of major institutional buying. Take, as an example, stamps or coins, where there are no troubling problems of text, and little institutional participation - icons all the way. A lively market flourishes in what is, in effect, a zero-sum game: the material circulates in and out of private collections, and the dealers and auction houses are the middle man. The antiquarian book world would not be substantially different from this model if we removed institutions from the picture.

Libraries have vastly more complex issues to resolve than do collectors and dealers. To a degree, most have already grappled with the question of preserving the icon versus availability of text, either consciously or unconsciously. Much of this, so far, is essentially passive decision-making - "We won't spend money on manuscripts that are already published," for example. Sometimes it has been surprisingly cavalier. I know of a number of institutions which have microfilmed runs of newspapers and discarded the originals. Bad paper may make this inevitable after the 1870s or so, but often these runs were much earlier. Hard to shelve and cumbersome to use, they don't seem to stir totemic emotion in the hearts of many librarians. The same people who would bridle at the thought of filming and deaccessioning a book had no problem shipping out the newspapers, although it seems to me that their value as text and object are every bit as good. Don't worry, they've gone where they are loved, by newspaper collectors, a quite distinct group of iconophiles.

The newspaper issue demonstrates an area where many institutions have settled an important issue: icon versus text, based on prejudice against a particular medium and not on a wholly rational policy. The dichotomy will be thrust forward more and more as technology rolls on in the coming years, and special collections will have to define what mixture of the two they aim to fulfill. Some institutions may have the luxury of both retaining the icon and adding the technology. For many, though, economics as much as scholarship will demand the question be answered, and the ultimate determination in many cases won't be made by rare book curators. Filming and digital storage may begin to cut closer to home than newspapers.

All of this leads to the question of the financial health of the institutions. Almost without exception, the universities of the United States are in declining financial condition. The same is true, or worse, for most private institutional libraries. Costs of keeping the doors open, much less adding new material to library collections, have sky-rocketed far beyond inflation. How will this affect the marketplace?

First, we have already seen and continue to see institutions deciding to get out of the business of maintaining special collections of books and manuscripts because they feel they can no longer afford it. The dispersal of part of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society rare book collection or the special collections of the Franklin Institute, to name but two, put large blocks of specialized material back in the marketplace. In the latter case, important parts of the collection were absorbed by other Philadelphia area libraries, but much was widely scattered in what I have to say was a model of how not to sell off a library. Private institutions will remain particularly vulnerable; but, as we see whole state university systems threatened with fiscal collapse, I predict we will see the draconian elimination of special collections from some university libraries. Here new information technology may serve as a pretext for administrators to declare their icons obsolete. What seemed an object of pride and expansion in the 1960s will look like a bankable asset in leaner times. Whatever the logic, the books will return to the marketplace.

Less apocalyptically and more widely, institutions will increasingly define their areas of collecting rare books and manuscripts and dispose of "out-of-scope" material. Interlibrary cooperation and division of spheres of responsibility are already major factors in library buying, and they will become more and more important ones in deaccessioning, especially if the only way to fund acquisitions in a field of strength is to get out of a field of weakness. These decisions can be easy - a state historical society sells its Middle Eastern travel books - or very painful, such as the Rylands Library's deaccession of several years ago; but economics will make them inevitable, and the market will reward them handsomely.

Institutions have long deaccessioned duplicates, and this has been a steady source of supply in the market in the last decade. The real question here is how one defines a duplicate. Does the Humanities Research Center really need all of those copies of Ulysses or The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, or would they be doing textual scholarship a grave disservice to let even one of them go? Do multiple presentation copies of the same book have a place in an institutional library, or are they superfluous? Are binding variants important enough to scholars to keep two copies of a modern rarity if the text is the same? These are all questions over which thinking people can disagree, especially if the generated funds are used to buy material not in a collection.

The final area of deaccessioning will come from libraries who decide that text is paramount, and that the icons count for little or nothing except a storage problem. From there it is an easy step to film, copy, scan, and send the originals out the door, even materials at the heart of libraries' holdings. Without passing judgment on this radical approach, I can tell you it has been done, and it will be done. Often these libraries have ignored the market value of their fallen icons in disposing of them. Once again, don't worry - the marketplace is an efficient mechanism for preserving discarded rarities. But it is ironic when valuable material is almost thrown away in the name of economy.

I predict that over the next quarter century libraries will be net sellers of books and manuscripts. There will be fewer institutional buyers - indeed, fewer institutions - and those that are active will buy more narrowly and selectively. The same selection will take place within libraries as they rearrange their printed and manuscript assets. Some will refine their collections based on a well thought out, coordinated program; but many more, probably, will review their holdings less carefully and under duress.

How will these institutional changes affect the rare book trade? If the behavior of institutions played a major role in shaping the book business of today, what will happen in the future? The number of antiquarian booksellers - or at least people calling themselves antiquarian booksellers - has grown markedly in the last several decades. At the same time, there has been a decline in the old-fashioned urban, generalist, walk-in bookstore with a broad range of rare books. I believe this shift to catalogue-issuing specialists is due in part to the dominance of the institutional market in its heyday. Obviously, other factors have played a part: the decline of inner cities, rising urban rents, the expense of employees, and the like. It is unquestionably easier and cheaper to set oneself up as an antiquarian bookseller with a mail order operation. The problem is finding customers. Unlike institutions, there are few good directories of private book buyers.

Catalogues can be a perfectly effective way to sell books to private customers. After all, we live in a society that has embraced mail order shopping to an unprecedented degree. If the reader is motivated and interested and has the money to spend, the bookseller is in clover. Institutional buyers were often all three, and that made life easy. Now, they often lack the essential third ingredient. Private buyers require cultivation, and it is hard to plant the seed out of the blue.

This is where the loss of the old-fashioned bookstore has greatly hurt the trade and the world of book collecting. A person with a general, vague interest in books could visit at will, browse, dabble, and perhaps buy a less expensive item. Many collectors were uninterested in progressing further; but if they were, they could see both a range of material, be drawn to an area of specialization, and receive some guidance in the arcane lingo of the book world. From this formula, many collectors flourished. A store like John Howell Books in San Francisco created numerous collectors who, once started, were happy to buy from catalogues.

Cultivating customers can be wearisome work for booksellers, who often find in librarians individuals who share their knowledge and enthusiasm for books and manuscripts. Private collectors may be excited and well versed, too, but they often require explanations and cajoling that no librarian would need. In short, the bookseller must work harder to be a convincing salesman.

I fear book people are often not good missionaries for what they believe in. Virtually any other area of collecting will entice the customer in a variety of ways, and cause them to go out and look for more. The book trade has more often waited for interested people to come to them and hoped they have some money. Those enterprising entrepreneurs in the trade who have taken the opposite tack of finding people with money and convincing them to buy books are often regarded with scorn tinged with envy by their colleagues. But more private buyers are the trade's best hope for the coming decades, and they are less likely to occur spontaneously than in the days when books were plentiful and cheap and there were more open shops. The trade needs to proselytize. So, perhaps, do the institutions, because more private collectors may be the best hope for their continued growth, if they seek to pursue it along traditional collecting lines. The passage of great private collections into public ones is the basis of some of our largest rare book and manuscript libraries. Universities in particular have strong traditions of collections built by alumni gifts, but where is Yale's next Edwin Beinecke, or Harvard's next Philip Hofer, or a donor to many institutions like Elizabeth Ball?

Earlier in this century, both Yale and Harvard had popular professors actively proclaiming the value and interest of rare books and manuscripts and their connection to scholarship. Chauncey Brewster Tinker at Yale and George Parker Winship at Harvard planted the spark of interest in numerous undergraduates. In time, some of them made a lot of money and some of them became book collectors. The results are evident. Our host institution is a direct result, and similar connections have enriched numerous libraries. How many undergraduate courses today expose students directly to the treasures of special collections? We can have as many receptions for our Friends groups as we like, and they should be cultivated, but it is on the undergraduate level that enthusiasms of a lifetime can be born, even if they are decades in coming to fruition. Private collectors don't necessarily wait until death to present their collections, either, and in this sense, may offer institutions their best chance to participate in the present marketplace. I think of a collector like Jenkins Garrett at the University of Texas at Arlington, who has been both a donor and an angel to special collections there, or Lawrence Witten's contributions as godfather of the Yale Historic Sound Recordings collection or, again, Philip Hofer's long career here.

I believe that in the coming decades institutions will be net suppliers of books to the marketplace. This may come about through decisions based on technology or library cooperation, or it may be the result of financial necessity. Whatever the case, libraries that choose to deaccession will do better to plan their actions to take best advantage of the marketplace.

Ultimately, a healthy marketplace is a good thing for the entire rare book world, providing liquidity of supply necessary for buying and selling by private individuals and institutions. As I've suggested, institutions have a vested interest in maintaining a symbiotic relationship with the private collecting community. Markets need supply and circulation, and ultimately the refining and definition of library holdings may work to the benefit of all.

We are at the end of an extraordinary half century of growth and expansion in the world economy, and especially that of the United States. During that time, the libraries of this country have acquired a significant portion of the books and manuscripts that are the icons of the cultures of the world, particularly of the West. In the life of some of these objects, fifty years is a short time, and it may be arrogant to suppose that they are fated to remain where they are in perpetuity. Some will certainly travel again by economic necessity and because of intellectual fashion, but hopefully by rational design as well.