August 1, 2007KR BlogUncategorized

Rare Books II

In my last blog, I wrote about the rareness of rare books, which is to say it was a meditation on those qualities that make books precious to us both emotionally and financially. I was writing in response to the closing of a “literary landmark” in Los Angeles, the Heritage Book Shop, and though I didn’t quite know where I was headed when I began writing, I ended up lamenting the trade in rare books that makes so many of them available only to collectors with the cash to acquire their heart’s desires. Libraries, it seemed to me, were a better alternative. My idle blog garnered some responses that didn’t show up on the KR website, so I thought I’d report and reflect on those. (Or, if you’re tired of the subject already, fast forward to this article about the rare books musical Bookends, proving that anything can be made into a musical.)

First of all, it seems rare books dealers are most definitely dialed in; I received an email about my post almost immediately from a very engaging rare books dealer in Philadelphia who wondered if libraries were not in fact black holes where rare books go to disappear. Are they in fact made use of once cataloged and shelved? Or, does a rare book become merely one of hundreds or more locked away in climate-controlled storage units where they can never be happened upon directly? Isn’t, after all, the care and attention of one collector evidence of better use (and, presumably, more proper devotion)?

Next, Seattle based rare books dealer Michael Lieberman blogged back, arguing for open access to rare books. Not only does Lieberman contend that bookshops are true points of open access–providing direct experiences of “the book” for those browsing or happening upon them–but he also makes a strong argument for digitizing rare books and making them available to as many as possible.

I couldn’t agree more with the last point. As a teacher of Renaissance literature, I have frequent recourse, in both my research and, increasingly, in my teaching to Early English Books Online, one of many such platforms. Alas, it is not free, and I have the good fortune to have access through my university. So, let’s all agree that it would be ideal if such facilities were more widely available. Indeed, many of my academic colleagues at other institutions, scholars in a variety of historical fields, don’t have access to these databases as even academic libraries devoted to the preservation of historial legacies run short on funding for digital archive access (among other things).
What is there, then, for public institutions, like municipal libraries, to do in such cases? For all that we inherit the legacy of Carnegie’s philanthropy, perhaps we need new digital Carnegies to step up and secure that legacy with more than just computers. We can, of course, thank Bill Gates for providing those to many libraries across the country. But how about cash for some books, Bill, and for funding to access digital archives in even the humblest of village libraries far from the metropolis and the rare books shop? (The Gates Foundation already does focus on basic internet access, providing computers to any library that promises to link to the web.)

I must disagree with the premise put forth by both of these rare books dealers that rare books shops constitute a form of open access. Lieberman says, “In many cases you have greater access to rare books at a bookshop than you do at the library. Yes, they might not be able to afford to buy the book but the experience of handling it is priceless.” For me, as nice as it is to touch and smell a rare book, taking in its aura as if through the skin, the reading experience is what’s most important. It’s hard for me to imagine how a bookshop makes that possible, no less more possible than a library. Besides, as we all know “priceless” things sell to the highest bidder. Who, also, feels entitled to walk into an exclusive rare book store? Hopefully all, but I fear that isn’t the case. Surely, the same can be said for some libraries, too. At the end of the day, it’s hard for me to see how the market economy of rare books creates genuine open access. Perhaps libraries don’t yet either, but they seem to me to be a better bet for the long term future.
Moreover, the emotional appeal of being that one person who has the privilege to handle, admire, and care for a rare book seems poor recompense for what I perceive to be a real loss of access. Rare books are part of cultural and historical inheritances that make them, in my mind, a certain kind of public property. Nice idea, of course, until one has to consider how that might be financed. There’s no getting around the finance of books. Like literature, the various storage devices of writing and information–from codex to book to digital platform–have always been wedded to economics. Solutions to the problem of access and availability are, therefore, rarer than the rarest of books.