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Rare Books and the Internet

By Anne Welsh, on 9 July 2010

I’ve spent this week at the London Rare Books School (LRBS), taking a course on Modern First Editions.

This course is unique at the LRBS in that it is taught entirely by booksellers, principally Laurence Worms (Ash Books) and Julian Rota (Bertram Rota). As a traditionally qualified librarian, who studied under John Turner at Aberystwyth, this course gave me a completely different perspective on books as objects and books as commodities.

“Commodities” may sound overly harsh and give a false impression: our tutors this week love books as much as librarians and other scholars – it’s just that they trade in them and make their living directly from them.

I was heartened on our visit to legendary bookseller Rick Gekoski to discover that there is still a healthy market for beautiful and unique things, and excited on our trip to Cecil Court to discover new ways of dealing in specialist books.

It was also a relief to hear that booksellers are just as concerned about the move to digital as librarians. Julian Rota was a panelist at the British Library’s Digital Lives conference last year, and as one of the most experienced and distinguished brokers in literary manuscripts is actively involved in discussions with the top research libraries and with authors themselves about the future scholarship (and market) of archives on computer.

The book trade has been revolutionised by the growth of Amazon, ebay and Abe books, as well as the ability to track auction records online. There are pluses as well as minuses, and businesses like Goldsboro Books that could not have started without the Internet, as well as smaller, provincial, traditional bookshops whose doors have been helped to close by the availability of cheap books through the Web.

The last academic article on the impact of the Internet on the book trade appears to be Whewell and Souitaris in 2001. Perhaps it’s time for another action study gathering the opinions of the traditional antiquarians before they retire?

In any case, in the final LRBS plenary, it was great to hear traditional bookseller Laurence Worms speculate on the future joys of literary researchers:

What would you give to read Shakespeare’s emails? What would you give to read the emails Shakespeare deleted?

We might need more equipment and the book as object may be less tactile in its electronic form, but as far as literary electronic records go, bring on the brave new world!

2 Responses to “Rare Books and the Internet”

  • 1
    Rare Books and the Internet « Library Marginalia wrote on 9 July 2010:

    […] Read this post on the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities Blog […]

  • 2
    Jennifer Dekker wrote on 15 July 2010:

    Perhaps specialist book sellers such as those dealing in modern first editions will become as much in demand as those selling clandestine literature in 18th century france … charging large sums for in demand titles, operating a network of supply under the radar of large booksellers such as Amazon, essentially establishing an effective way of readers and collectors to obtain titles through dropping out of the common market. What about commissioning reprints or new editions? i wonder if book dealers would ever be so powerful again. it’s interesting to think of printed books as being almost a fetish market, but i think it will come to that, as vinyl has for music.

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