We learned this morning that our colleague and friend Bob Fleck passed away yesterday. It is news whose sadness will be felt by a large number of the people that I know. In many ways he stood alone. I am quite sure that there is no one I have met who has made a greater practical contribution to the study of books in all their many aspects. The world of bibliophiles is greatly in his debt, myself among them.
Bob was the founder and determined force behind Oak Knoll Books, the world’s most important specialist in the broad subject generally referred to as “books on books.” He served his customers both as an expert in old and rare books and as a publisher and distributor of new ones. The publishing house he built became the first and last resort for bibliographic publications of all sorts. There are many important titles that would never have reached a printing press without Bob’s backing and help.
There can be few serious bibliophiles or booksellers whose reference shelves do not include numerous books that have passed through Bob’s office or shop in some form or another.
But the contributions to his colleagues were far from limited to the books he sold. He was continuously giving his time to the bookselling organisations he belonged to and supported. He served both the ABAA and the ILAB with terms as treasurer and president. It is interesting to note that, even though his speciality was focused almost entirely on items related to the printed book, Bob also oversaw the creation of three ILAB websites. He was instrumental in establishing the first ILAB book search engine and then was later active in helping establish the current metasearch which later replaced it. That was a project we worked on together and which might not have succeeded without his insights and support.
Beyond that, he also gave early and much appreciated help to viaLibri, becoming the first of our users to try advertising on our site. It was a very characteristic thing for him to do: looking to the future and supporting a colleague.
Bob’s accomplishments and generosity of spirit were appreciated across the full spectrum of bibliophiles, including librarians, scholars, collectors and, of course, his fellow booksellers. I expect to see a stream of tributes over the next days and weeks. As they are brought to my attention I will link to them here. For now, the first tribute appears, appropriately, on the ILAB website he did so much to create and sustain. You can read it below.
Our thoughts and deepest sympathies are now with Bob’s wife Millie and son Rob.
A brilliant exhibition of illuminated manuscripts opened this weekend at the Fitzwilliam Museum. If you have any chance of getting to Cambridge before the end of the year this is something you absolutely should not miss.
While a focus on the importance of colour in medieval and early renaissance art brings out a visually stunning selection of items to display, the attention paid to the technical aspects of the subject (pigment types, recipes, international pigment trade, painting techniques, modelling, alchemy, etc.) makes this more than just a collection of beautiful artwork, although it is certainly that too.
Fortunately, if you cannot make it in person you will only be missing out on a portion of what has been done here. There is, of course, an illustrated printed catalogue (420 pages) which includes general commentary along with extensive catalogue notes on the 150 items placed on display. At £30 it is a remarkable bargain.
But perhaps even more impressive is the website created in support of the exhibition. There, reachable by an obscure link near the end of the introduction, is a section of the website entitled “ILLUMINATED: manuscripts in the making.” where high resolution digitised copies of 20 of the manuscripts can be browsed and zoomed. The quality of these images is exceptional; some of them nearly sparkle on the screen. They are the first fruits of a manuscript digitisation project which has just been launched and which, together with the exhibition and its catalogue, celebrates the museum’s bicentenary.
COLOUR is really a remarkable event. The Fitzwilliam has “the finest and largest museum collection of illuminated manuscripts in existence” and most of the items exhibited are from its own collection. Much of that collection came to it as part of the bequest of the museum’s founder Richard, VII Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion, in 1816. A provision of that bequest requires that the manuscripts cannot leave the museum building. Thus they can only be seen at an exhibition like the one now underway. Many are now on public view for the first time. All of which underlines the importance of this exhibition and the Illuminated project to digitise the Fitzwilliam’s spectacular collection.
[Long before viaLibri had its own proper blog I began blogging (and even tweeting) under the name of vialibrian. It was not, I must confess, a very sustained effort, and the size of my following reflected this. Now that viaLibri has its own blog, demanding its own attentions, I have had to acknowledge that finding the time for a single blog is challenge enough. I do not need two. So vialibrian has posted his last post.
However, we still imagine that most of the subjects that vialibrian chose to comment on continue to be interest, at least to some. So, rather than abandon the old posts completely I decided to let them emigrate here to a new home where they can live on in fresh obscurity. Most will just sit far back in the timeline, as though they had been there all along. A few of them, however, will be brought over and re-inserted, under the pretence that there may still be visitors who will find interest in what we had to say a few years ago.
We begin here with some comments on book searching that were first posted on August 4, 2013.]
Searching for books in days of yore.
Back in April , when I launched this blog, I was pleased that my first post managed to elicit a nice comment. One particular point made by this commenter has been banging around in my head ever since. On the subject of want lists, he wrote:
Electronic book-collecting tools are all focused on “dealer push” — a vendor essentially saying, “Here’s what I have. Are you interested.” The tools aggregate and push this information. We know that many large booksellers do not have the time or inclination to post all of their inventories. It would be nice to go back to the old days of “pull” — posting want lists in magazines to let dealers and fellow collectors know what we are interested in and looking for. It’s a service I would readily pay for within the context of a strong collector community like ViaLibri.
It was an interesting suggestion, even without the hint of additional revenue. It made me wonder. I am always surprised at how easy it is to forget the ”old days” of antiquarian bookselling, before the internet changed everything. It was a time when weekly printed periodicals like The Clique, Bookdealer and AB Bookman were the primary tools of book searching; or, more precisely, the only tools for book searching.
For those too young or forgetful to remember, it worked like this: First you made a list of the books you wanted. Unless you were a bookseller yourself, you then had to find someone who was and give them your list. They would type it up [another call to nostalgia] along with all the other lists they had been given and then mail it to one of the aforementioned magazines where it would appear, along with numerous other similar lists, every week, ink on paper, in endless printed columns of ”Books Wanted.” At that point thousands of hopeful booksellers around the world, many of them list-makers themselves,
After that the “quoting” would begin. Items to be quoted would first need to be hunted for and located on whatever shelf they had been assigned to or misplaced on. Then descriptions had to be prepared. Postcards, paper slips, even letters would be written, usually by hand, describing, as succinctly as possible, the essential details of the book on offer – and little more. The amount of time required to write all these descriptions placed a great premium on abbreviation. As a result, a compact, almost stenographic language of book description evolved in response. (It had, I would grant, antecedents in the jargon of printed catalogues) Notations such as a.e.g, ARC, ALS, FE, bce, f.f.e., v.g. and, most notorious of all, w.a.f, all became part of the compressed specialist language of booksellers and initiated collectors. But even these shortcuts only reduced by a small fraction the work at hand. And it was not a stimulating activity by any measure.
But tedious labor was not the only investment made in quoting books for sale. Ignoring the cost of postage (which for some might not be an insignificant expense) the bookseller also invested opportunity cost with every book he offered for sale. This came from the fact that quoting a book nearly always meant removing it from available stock and putting it on reserve. In the days of snail mail this usually involved three weeks or even a month. (Sometimes the actual customer at the other end also needed to be contacted by post, so a month could easily pass before a sale could be confirmed). To quote a book and then be unable to provide it was a breach of faith that few colleagues would easily forgive or forget. So the decision to quote an item to a distant hypothetical customer might also mean foregoing its equally possible sale to a customer who might actually walk through the door after the book had been withdrawn on quote. The more desirable and uncommon the book, the greater the risk and cost in putting it on reserve.
The quoters, however, were not the ones who took the greatest risk. That would be found on the other side of the potential transaction: the booksellers who made the lists in the first place. These, you see, were not free. They were paid advertising, pure and simple. You were charged by the line, or the page, and it was not cheap. Every book listed was a separate wager that a copy might be found and sold. Many booksellers were only willing to take this gamble on the behalf of their regular customers. The others who were willing to offer a “search service” to the general public did so as a calculated risk. For most of these, the ordinary out-of-print book was their bread and butter. The more common it was the better. On one hand, a customer looking for Fanny Farmer’s Cook Book was as good as money in the bank. On the other hand, a PHD student with a list of the 18th century epistolary novels not already available from nearby libraries was an almost certain financial loss.
A few booksellers would try to shift their risk by charging their customers for each book they wanted before they had found it. This was, however, unusual. The typical customer readily perceived a potential scam in this approach and usually went elsewhere. The “free” book search service was always the norm.
In spite of the risk, many who provided this service appeared to be quite successful and regularly advertised multiple pages of wants. Some even advertised their free services in places like the New York Times and the TLS. The economics of this have always been intriguing to skeptics like myself. It is a losing game to advertise for uncollected books that are unlikely be found. If you had the experience to already know what was available, and what was not, the temptation to ignore requests for the latter might be difficult to resist. The only alternative would be to have the customer for Fanny Farmer subsidise the cost of searching for the other items that were unlikely to be found. This was the usual approach, but it could make the out-of-print cookbooks and knitting manuals very expensive. And often they were, at least when you resorted to a search service to find them. But the buyers rarely complained. They generally understood that the marketplace for old books was hopelessly disorderly and inefficient. Whenever it did manage to yield, on request, a long sought-after item the reaction on the part of the customer was almost always a mixture of gratitude and surprise.
Many, many books were bought and sold in this fashion. It was a system that lasted a bit more than a century. It helped sustain many struggling booksellers whose shops were otherwise too remote from regular customers to support a living wage. It provided to the inexperienced novitiates of the antiquarian book trade a weekly lesson book on the mysterious marketplace they hoped to enter. It became, in many respects, the universal binding agent in the large and otherwise disconnected world of second-hand bookselling.
If you have been giving any thought to selling books on your own website, or if you already have a website but haven’t yet figured out how to get collectors to actually visit it, then we have an announcement that we think should be of interest to you: LibriDirect has now officially been launched. And what is LibriDirect? It is, in a nutshell, how independent booksellers can use viaLibri to bring customers to their websites.
This is, of course, something we have been working on for years. It began with developing tools to harvest websites and put the books of independent booksellers into search results on viaLibri. It was a good start, but the technical requirements, though simple, were an obstacle for many of the sellers who wanted to sign up. We realised early on that we also needed to develop a solution where the technical requirements were already taken care of. We needed to build websites ourselves that came with all the necessary features already built in. And these we named LibriDirect because their purpose, above all else, was to bring booksellers into direct connection with the online customers who bought their books.
But it also became more than just that. In the process of creating websites we found ourselves reexamining the entire question of how to sell books on the internet, especially in the wake of the incredible growth of social media and the dramatic transition of the internet from a primarily textual to an overwhelmingly visual medium. We are quite optimistic about what these trends will mean for the future of book collecting, and, by extension, bookselling.
It was with these things in mind that we took a stand at the London Olympia book fair where we hoped to talk with booksellers about the future of bookselling and to demonstrate, in particular, how LibriDirect websites can help them find their future customers in the advancing digital age.
However, if you wanted to learn more, but couldn’t drop by, you have not been forgotten. We have prepared a special page that describes many of the things we things we might have told you if we had had the chance. Just follow this link to and discover what LibriDirect can do for you.