We have moved.  If you are looking for our most recent posts you will now need to visit us at:

We look forward to seeing you there.

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Two New Libraries Added To viaLibri’s Quick Query Library Search.

On Wednesday I added two more libraries to the viaLibri library search page: The German National Library (Deutsche Nationalbibliothek to be precise) and the Thomas J. Watson Library of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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The first of these is, well, the national library of Germany and one might reasonably ask why we weren’t including it already. In fact, when I first started work on our library search tool the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek, as such, had not really existed for more than a few years – although it did have roots going back much further than that. I don’t know when their catalogue finally went online, but I’m glad that one of our regular users did eventually alert me to the fact. It took me far too long after that to follow up, but it has now, at last, been taken off my to-do list.

The second library to be added is the important reference collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This numbers over a million volumes, including 125,000 auction catalogues and a significant collection of early and rare books related to the history of art. I would also note that the online catalogue is named Watsonline after Thomas J. Watson, the CEO and chairman of IBM who, if I may be permitted to digress, could easily be called the founder of the commercial computer industry. Except that there were actually two Thomas J. Watsons, father and son, both of whom ran IBM, one after the other, and could equally claim this credit. And on top of that it seems to be a secret which one of them should get credit for the library.

Digressing yet further, I feel compelled to mention that when my father and the younger Watson were growing up in Short Hills, New Jersey, my father beaned the latter with a rotten tomato during some great battle the other details of which I once knew but have since forgotten. I do know that no return strike was registered on my father’s own person by either Watson or his cohorts. My father did later move on to some fame and glory as the starting pitcher for his college fraternity baseball team. After that he became a management consultant who was often quoted on the subject of computers with the observation that “they’re faster, but they take longer.” Watson Jr. did also have some success in other fields.

In any case, you will need to look for “Watsonline” if you want to find the button that will search their books.

I should also point out that both of these libraries were added as a direct result of requests from regular users. It’s not that I was holding back and waiting for someone to ask; it’s only that sometimes a specific library just hadn’t occurred to us yet, or in other cases it is a library that did not have workable online access when the Quick Query feature was launched, but has since been upgraded and can now easily join the group. If you know of such a library please let me know.

And if you happen to notice a broken link for one of the libraries we already search then that is also something I am eager to hear about. Our latest update includes fixing a number of links that had gone bad since the last time we tested them thoroughly. It is an endless task. Progress and improvement are wonderful things (or so I’m told) but when they happen to websites and online services the most frequent result is broken links. So if you do happen to stumble upon some new outbreak of library improvement please let me know so that I can fix its aftermath as quickly as possible.

Posted in Book Searching, Libraries, Technology & Bookselling, viaLibri | Leave a comment

Something New, with a sneak peak in York

At this moment I am setting up at the York National Book Fair – but I will not be selling books. Instead, I am here to give a preview of something new I have been working on for most of the last year. If you are one of the many booksellers who have been asking us how to have their books searched directly on viaLibri then our new creation may be of interest. If you have a blog built with WordPress then this should be of particular interest. Or if you are simply looking for a reasonable way to get your own website and increase your visibility on the web, then you should definitely be interested in dropping by our stand upstairs at the York Fair.

If it happens that, for some reason, you will not be in York this weekend, then just click the “Contact” button, send me and inquiry, and I will try to send you some details as soon as something is ready.

But it would be more fun if you just came to York. The book fair is open until 5 pm Saturday. I hope to see you there.

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Latest Developments in the Girolamini Scandal

Recent events in the wake of the Girolamini thefts have revealed that the Italian authorities who are  pursuing the matter appear to be clueless about the nature of the books that they are charged with recovering.   Many interesting details in this regard are found in the recent memorandum sent to the Italian judiciary by ILAB president Norbert Donhofer, copied below.  Among other things, this astonishing text reveals that, in the minds of the Italian investigators, it is possible for books which have already been seized and secured in police vaults in Germany to be held at the same time on the shelves of a Danish bookseller.  This miraculous transmigration of texts leads us to wonder what other fantastical accusations may await us in the future.

The text of the ILAB memorandum follows:


In March 2012 Professor Tomaso Montanari first brought to light a cultural theft, which then appeared to be limited to the Girolamini Library, based in Naples. We now know that the Director of the library at the time, Marino Massimo de Caro, widened his trail in plundering through other libraries in Italy as well: Montecassino, Naples Municipal Library, Ministry of Agriculture Library, a Seminary in Padua, and the Ximines Observatory Library in Florence. Soon after the discovery of the theft the Italian authorities announced that four books from the Girolamini Library were offered in Auction 59 (May 2012) at the Munich Auction House Zisska and Schauer, and arranged for them to be seized by the German police. The auction house thereupon recalled all books from this consignment – a total of 540 titles – and handed them over to the German authorities in Munich, where these books have been stored to this day.


The President of ILAB at the time – Arnoud Gerits – then informed the members of ILAB in an open letter and he immediately offered his assistance and cooperation to the Italian investigating authorities to uncover the truth of this scandal. When Tom Congalton was elected the new President of ILAB in the autumn of 2012, he gave renewed assurances to the Italian authorities of ILAB’s willingness to assist in every conceivable manner to get to the bottom of this case. Both offers, as well as many others made subsequently, went unanswered by the Italian authorities.

On April 8 in 2013, the President of the Italian Association of Antiquarian Booksellers, ALAI, Fabrizio Govi, attempted to relate the criminal route of Marino Massimo de Caro in a speech in the Library of Congress; in the edition of the “The New Yorker” of December 16 in  2013, Nicholas Schmidle described in detail how the former Director of the Girolamini Library was further implicated. Both of these, the speech made by Fabrizio Govi and Nicholas Schmidle’s article, were also brought to the attention of the Italian authorities.

In 2013 the Italian antiquarian bookseller Giuseppe Solmi was arrested by the Italian Carabinieri, and released a short time later. The charge: dealing in books stolen from one of the libraries in which Marino Massimo de Caro was operating. On the 2nd of August of the same year the auctioneer Herbert Schauer was arrested on the strength of a European arrest warrant, and deported to Italy several weeks afterwards. The charge: dealing in books stolen from one of the libraries in which Marino Massimo de Caro was operating and participation in a criminal association. Herbert Schauer was condemned to a five-year prison sentence early this summer, but meanwhile the arrest of Mr. Schauer was lifted by the Italian Court of Cassation.


The latest case in relation to this affair concerns the Danish antiquarian bookseller Christian Westergaard. He was arrested several weeks ago in front of his family. The charge: dealing in books stolen from one of the libraries in which Marino Massimo de Caro was operating. To be sure, Christian Westergaard was released the same day, but the eleven books that had been secured by the Danish police during a mutual assistance procedure remained in safekeeping by the Danish police. The most astonishing thing about the latter case is the fact that all eleven books were also included in the catalogue of Zisska and Schauer’s Auction 59 and hence had already been secured by the German authorities since May 2012. For all eleven of the books that had been secured by him, Christian Westergaard was subsequently able to prove when, where and from whom he had acquired them. This includes also books he had acquired from the Macclesfield Auction at Sotheby’s in London (2006ff).

It was only a few days before the start of the first auction of Philobiblon/Bloomsbury (Rome) when the Carabinieri confiscated all lots of the auction by order of the court at Naples. It was suspected that some books of this auction had been stolen from the Girolamini library. The President of ALAI, Fabrizio Govi, appointed two independent experts to check the books, and Mr. Danesi and Mr. Parkin reported that not a single book of the auction could be traced back to an Italian Public Library.

ILAB protests against this unprofessional approach by the Italian authorities in the strongest terms. A simple glance at the lists of the items stored in Munich would have shown straightaway that the books seized in Denmark could not possibly be those volumes that were stolen by Marino Massimo de Caro, nor does it appear to be clear to the investigating authorities that in the vast majority of cases there are naturally a number of copies of printed books, whatever age they may be, that differ in their state of preservation, binding, or provenance.

ILAB further protests against the fact that, through the procedures chosen by the Italian authorities, respectable citizens and business people are falling under suspicion of criminal actions and consequently their reputations are being frivolously compromised. The shock experienced by the families of those arrested under undignified circumstances is also mentioned here for the sake of completion.

ILAB is also protesting against the fact that, as a result of these measures, an entire profession is being stigmatized and might be at risk of losing its credit standing with private and institutional clients, as well as banks, which has taken decades to build up.

ILAB is a long way from giving advice to the Italian judiciary, but we are renewing our offer to the investigating authorities to assist in having these criminal actions thoroughly cleared up and to cooperate unconditionally. By providing you with some expertise required to differentiate between different copies of the same title, we might be able to help prevent a repetition of potentially embarrassing and unnecessary events such as the regrettable arrest of Christian Westergaard. Once again ILAB requests the Italian authorities to provide us with lists of the stolen books which could be included in our stolen books database.

As President of ILAB, I would be happy to meet with the relevant authorities at any time.

Norbert Donhofer, President of ILAB

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Algorithmic book pricing and its implications

I was recently asked to offer comments on the issue of algorithmic book pricing for the newsletter of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association.  The issue where the comments appear has now just arrived in the mail.  Since the ABA newsletter reaches only a limited audience and has no online version I thought I should reproduce the text here, in case it might be of interest to others.

Comments from readers who have actually used these services will be eagerly received.


John Henry said to the captain,
“A man ain’t nothin’ but a man,
But before I let your algo beat me down,
I’ll die with a pencil in my hand
Lord, Lord
I’ll die with a pencil in my hand.”

Back in September the issue of algorithmic pricing surfaced in one of the ABA email Bulletins. It came in response to a letter sent by a member to myself and the ABA office seeking an explanation for a strange phenomenon he had recently observed: out-of-print text books on sites like Amazon and AbeBooks were being listed at absurd prices, in some cases reaching into six figures.  He wondered if this might possibly be evidence of a new scam devised to fleece careless librarians who used automated ordering systems and may not be noticing the prices that they pay.  I suggested, instead, that the most likely explanation was that software, rather than human intelligence, was being used to price the books.

Shortly thereafter  the ABA newsletter editors, ever conscious of the need to fill pages, asked if I could elaborate on the subject for a forthcoming issue.  Having already exposed myself in the pose of someone who understood this depressing subject I did not then find myself in a position to refuse their request.  It is not a subject I would otherwise choose on my own, but here it is.

Let me say, right off, that what I know about this subject has no basis in personal experience.  I have never let a machine price my books or even been in the presence of a machine that I knew was programmed to do so.  I would be fascinated to hear a personal account from a colleague who had actually tried this with his own books, but I suspect that if there really is someone amongst us who has already ventured down this gloomy path he would be reluctant to step forward and tell us about it. So you are left with me.

Algorithmic pricing (also known as robo pricing) refers to the use of specialized computer programs  to automate the pricing of  books (or anything else for that matter).  The best known providers of these programs are Monsoon and Fillz. Once provided with the ISBN number of any book, either of these services can connect to the internet and retrieve the prices and other relevant information for all the copies of that book available on the major book sites.   This is, of course, an automated version of what most of the rest of us already do manually nearly every day.  But the robo pricing engines take this one step further and include the ability to customize a small program (the “algorithim”) that processes all the data that it collects and spits out a price to match the particular instructions it was given.   It might, for instance, decide that it wants its copies to be priced at the exact median of all available copies (a bad strategy I would think) or to be 5 pence cheaper than any other copy, or half the average of any book with over 10 listings, or to be priced with virtually any other clever strategy the bookseller might conceive.  Moreover, the software  runs on a kind of auto-pilot that can continuously update prices online as things change, or even if they don’t .  The knowledge and experience of the bookseller plays no role in this operation.   Facts about the book itself are irrelevant.  All that is taken into consideration is the quantifiable information that can be gathered from the current online listings tied to a given ISBN.

The “algo” has no problems doing its job as long as it is given data to process,  but the situation can become  “interesting” when there are no other copies available for it to price against. Then anything is possible.  This was almost certainly the situation with the books that the concerned member was noticing. With nothing real to go on, the algorithm just went fishing with a very optimistic idea of what price might be possible.  It did not have to do this, of course.  The algorithm could have been designed with more reasonable expectations.  In this case it was just badly designed, and the result was a book that would not sell, at least until the algorithm decided to bring it back down to earth, which it probably eventually did.

An even crazier situation can result when there are only two copies of the same book available at the same time and both are being priced by algorithms that require their copy to always be the second least expensive available.  (Or the most expensive, though I doubt that actually occurs)  Books in this circumstance have been known to reach prices in the millions.

When this happens to a rare but insignificant book it may be good for a snicker or a chuckle, but in the end it is probably harmless.   What robo pricing does at other end of the scale, however, is much more significant and, increasingly, pervasive.   This is because the algorithms are really designed to drive prices down rather than up. They are meant to find the price at which an item is most likely to sell, and that price is almost always the lowest price. When there are hundreds, or even just dozens of identical copies available it is a clear sign that the supply of that book greatly exceeds the demand.   In that case, the successful algorithm will be the one that prices a copy at the lowest possible price.  If multiple sellers are using similar algorithms  then it is likely the price will drop to a penny, or whatever is set as the minimum price for that particular site.

The issue of profit may be irrelevant in this case.  It is probably more a question of minimizing final costs.  Once a book has been purchased, entered into the system, and determined to be too common to sell, it then becomes a question of cutting the bookseller’s loss.  Does it produce the least loss to cull and pulp it, indefinitely allocate a section of finite shelf space for it, or sell it in return for 1p + postage + the email address and personal details of someone now known to buy second-hand books.  In many cases it will be the one penny sale.   This is probably the kind of decision a machine can make much better than a human.

Fortunately, hardly any of us ever have to deal with books of that sort.  But there are books that fall somewhere in between the two extremes described above, and it is with these that the robo pricers expose a new reality that most of us will need to understand and, in a some cases, adapt to.

In the past, the price of a given book, usually pencilled onto the fly leaf,  was set by the seller at a carefully considered figure he believed one of his potential customers might eventually be induced to pay for it.  At the point of sale, in most cases, only one copy and one price would be involved in the decision to purchase.   Unless sold to another customer, the book that was refused one day would almost always have the same price two weeks, two months or two years later.  This is the way most retail products have traditionally been priced, and second-hand booksellers were no exception.  The arrival of the internet  changed this in at least one important respect:  the seller, for the first time, had easy access to the prices and other details of all the copies being offered by his competitors at that moment  and could set his own price on that basis.

There had always been something that you could call a “marketplace” for old books, but before the internet it operated in a dense fog.    Some historical information about the prices of books existed in auction records, price guides and in the proprietary memories of booksellers.  Generally accessible information about current availability and prices, however, did not exist.  There was no real marketplace where public knowledge of current prices and supply was available to all participants.   By making that information available in real time the internet changed  the “marketplace” for rare and second-hand books from a metaphor to a reality.

We are all now dealing with the enormous disruption that results from this.  Our accustomed ability to operate as free traders outside the pricing forces of an open marketplace is continuously challenged and reduced.  Only the portion of the book trade that deals in genuinely rare books escapes these pressures.

It would be merciful to leave the story there and not look further ahead, but the subject I started with cannot really be closed without noting one further aspect in which algorithmic pricing significantly alters the business of selling books: commoditization.  Algorithms can set their prices dynamically.  The idea that you pencil a price into a book and then leave it there until it’s sold may soon become a quaint anachronism.   And when a book price can change dynamically on the basis of all the other prices that are also continuously changing it creates a pricing process where the acquired knowledge of booksellers is, ultimately, unnecessary, if not useless.  In that circumstance the book becomes a commodity plain and simple.  As with any commodity exchange, the market sets the price and the human participants are only there to record the transactions, collect the money and arrange delivery.  On the product side, Amazon has, of course, been treating books as commodities in this respect from it’s very beginning.  When dynamic pricing engines come to set the price of a given ISBN or ASIN in an open online marketplace then the transformation, for that book at least, is complete.

Our one consolation is that this commoditization, if it does indeed take place, will most likely be restricted to books that have ISBN numbers and always have at least a few similar copies for sale online.  I suspect that there are very few ABA members who derive a major portion of their income from online sales of books like these.   They can be thankful that they do not.  But for the portion of the online book trade that does not regularly handle rare or pre-ISBN books the future may not be so bright.

Posted in ISBN, Rare Books, Technology & Bookselling, The future of Books | 8 Comments

viaLibri profiled in Business Weekly, demonstrating that the future of paper is still secure.

Business Weekly (“The Voice of Europe’s Innovation Capital – The East of England”) has just published an article about viaLibri.

It always feels a bit odd seeing yourself through the prism of other people’s interests and world view.  This was no exception, but I am not about to complain. I’m always happy when someone takes an interest in what I am doing, especially when they are approaching it from outside the generally biblio-centric universe I usually inhabit.   There was, naturally,  the inevitable interest in identifying the oldest books available, but I was spared having to also identify the most expensive.  Instead, the interviewer was curious to know about what countries the oldest books came from, and where they ended up.  That was actually an interesting question which I might have enjoyed answering at length, but I restrained myself.  Perhaps I will blog about it on another day.

Being interviewed was an interesting experience.  This publication is focused, in particular, on the fast growth, innovation-driven business community that is part of the technology cluster that has developed around Cambridge, England, where we are now based.  The people at the centre of it are working with stuff like genomes,  artificial intelligence and all the impossible to understand inventions that brainy people come up with when they start out doing pure research and then suddenly realize “hey, we could actually make something really useful out of this.”  Writing about all these freshly minted venture-backed technology companies and their more mature science park neighbors is what Business Weekly normally does.  Interviewing me was a bit off their usual beat.

So, as might be expected, the reporter was especially interested in knowing how viaLibri fit in with the well-reported march of disruptive technology as it applies to printed books.  He wondered if the growth of digital media and the reported death of paper might mean there was no future for books.  My opinion, of course, was to the contrary, and I was happy for the opportunity express it to an audience that might be thinking otherwise.

But what pleased me most was the discovery that Business Weekly itself offered irrefutable testimony to the superiority of paper over screen.  Because, you see, it is still a product of the printing press.  Of course, it now also has an online version, but that is a far less satisfactory product, albeit a far cheaper one to produce and distribute.   The article about viaLibri shows this.  In the printed version the article takes up all of page 4 (apart from an advertisement), and includes a large photograph in the middle.  In the photograph I am holding an interesting old book.  It is, moreover, a folio.  (The cheerleaders for ebooks are, of course, silent on the subject of folios).  The version of the article which appears on the website also has its picture, but the constraints of pixel and screen dictated that it had to be cropped.  The picture you see there shows only my head and shoulders.  The book I am holding is nowhere in sight.

Unfortunately, I cannot offer you a link to the printed version. That technology does not yet exist.  However, there is something else that I can link  to which will allow my point to be demonstrated quite well.  In addition to its ink and paper edition Business Weekly also appears in an “epaper” version. This is an exact digital facsimile of the printed version which allows you to “leaf” through its pages to the accompaniment of an annoying scratching/scraping sound.  If you scrape the epaper version of this week’s edition to page 4 you will see an image of the article, with the full photograph, as it also appears in print.  The epaper will show you what the website version has lost.

epaper version of Business Weekly

But you will not be able to actually read the epaper version because the type is much too small.  To make it legible you must zoom in.  That gives you type that is big enough to read, but forces you to scroll all over the page and read the text through what is, essentially, a moveable rectangular peep-hole. It is not a satisfying way to read.  Why? Because Business Weekly is a folio, as any good newspaper should be. epaper only comes in one format: small.  It is inextricably constrained by the dimensions of the screen on which it is displayed.  Folio is out of the question.  For that you need paper, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Which is one of many reasons why I think, for books at least, the future of paper is still secure.

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The new USTC site.

Yesterday a helpful user brought to my attention the newly updated website for USTC (Universal Short Title Catalogue) which was just launched 4 days ago.  For those unfamiliar with the project, its mission is to compile a “collective  database” of all European printed books from the 15th and 16th century, with a later extension into the seventeenth century also in sight.  I don’t think I need to make a point of how useful this will be to anyone who does research relating to early printing.

I was able to add it to viaLibri library search without the slightest trouble.  Whoever is responsible for the new design and user interface deserves great credit.  As someone who uses online bibliographic databases on a regular basis and has also had to build a few myself, I have, over time, developed a lot of opinions about how these things should be done.  A few minutes on the new USTC site won me over completely.  If anyone is out there working on new specs for an updated bibliographic search engine I don’t think they need to look any further for their model.

One thing in particular pleased me no end.  There has been a trend over the last few years to build search forms that use scroll bars instead of field labels.  For example, instead of having separate fields for author, title, keyword, date, etc. you are given, instead, multiple generic fields that each require scrolling through a long list of options for selecting what that particular form field will represent.  Basically, in addition to filling in the search terms, the user is also made to construct the form himself.  It is a tedious process that hides all the search options from the user until he opens up the scroll bars. In many cases it is there mostly to simplify the construction of Boolean searches, but how many people actually need that? I suspect it is very few.  If Boolean searches really are needed, then a separate interface should be provided, while the primary users are given an interface that is as simple and self-evident as possible.

USTC Search Form

Bravely against the trend, the new USTC does that beautifully. And that’s only a small slice of the cake.   I can’t wait until they get to work on the eighteenth century.

Posted in Book Searching, Libraries, Rare Books, viaLibri | Leave a comment

Searching for books in the digital age.

Anyone who managed to struggle to the end of my recent post on  “Searching For Books In Days Of Yore” may recall my reckless promise to continue on that topic at a later date.  It was not an idle threat. So, ignoring the fact that I am probably the only person who actually finds this subject of interest, I will keep my promise and now pick up where I left off two weeks ago.

In case you hadn’t noticed, a lot of things about book searching have changed since the days I was describing in my previous post.  Out of all of them, one fundamental change in particular needs to be mentioned first:  before the internet came along, if you wanted a specific book that was out-of-print you almost always needed a bookseller to find it for you.  There were no real options for doing it yourself.  The periodicals which carried the necessary “books wanted” lists were all trade publications. Private buyers did not advertise in them. The search process was effectively closed to the retail customer. This meant that if a sought-after book was available somewhere the buyer who wanted it never actually came in contact with the dealer who had it in stock.  At least two booksellers were required for every sale.

The internet made one of those booksellers superfluous.

Needless to say, this innovation did not generate enthusiasm from the booksellers who had once derived income from the inefficient system it destroyed.   I have enormous sympathy for them, as I do for all the travel agents, encyclopedia salesmen, music store owners, directory publishers, newspaper delivery boys and members of any other occupations whose lives were similarly upended by the internet.   The current popular term for this is “disruption.” It is a very Big Thing and has many people excited.  Venture capitalists and technology entrepreneurs worship in the temple of disruption. They spend a good portion of their working day trying to cook up new ways to render useless the existing skills and practices that provide a living for the rest of us.   Thus, when disruption came to the book searching business about 15 years ago there was no cheering from the trade. It is easy to understand why.  For many of them it was the end of the world as they knew it.

As for myself, there is definitely a part of me that would be quite content if they called a halt to all this disruption and just let everyone go on with their business doing things as they had always done them before.   I especially feel this way when I think about all my fellow booksellers who once made a living helping their customers find books in the pre-digital age.  In fact, I must confess that I ran a book search service myself once upon a time.  It was how I got my start in the book business, even before my wife and I opened our first shop. I did not know then that I was a dinosaur, and was happy not to know it.  Things seemed just fine the way they were.

But today, for better or worse, I have to count myself among the disrupters.  It would be pointless to pretend otherwise.  And if I stand in that camp and consider the question of book searching I feel compelled to do it from the perspective of the buyer rather than the seller.  When I do that, this is what I see:

-Before the internet, if you discovered an out-of-print book that you thought might be of interest it generally took at least a week or two just to find out if there might be a copy available somewhere for sale.

After the internet you could find this out in seconds.

– Before the internet you might learn about a book that you thought could be of interest to you, but have no idea of what it might cost you if a copy were found.  The only way to find out would be to put a friendly bookseller to the expense and trouble of searching for it for you. Since there was always good chance it might cost more than you could afford or want to pay, it was likely that you would only decide to do this if it were a book you absolutely had to have it.

After the internet you could quickly check the price and availability of any book without expense, embarrassment or commercial engagement.

-Before the internet, the pool of available books to search from was limited to the available stock of those booksellers who took the time and trouble to quote from published want lists.  This was only a tiny fraction of the total books available in the marketplace.

After the internet, the pool of findable books exploded as it became possible for booksellers to upload their entire inventory online and leave it there until sold.  At the same time, the actual quoting of a book became unnecessary to sell it.  These two things made it dramatically easier to locate a reasonable copy of a wanted book.

– Before the internet  the reach of want lists rarely went beyond national or linguistic boundaries. The periodicals that carried them had limited distribution beyond the countries they were published in, and quoters rarely saw profit in mailing out quotes at international postage rates.  This made searching for books published in other countries or languages especially difficult.

After the internet the marketplace became international.  Metasearch sites brought books together from booksellers around the world.  Customers were no longer limited to looking for foreign books primarily from the stocks of booksellers in their own country.

– Before the internet, most of the book descriptions offered to search services provided little more than a coded description of format and condition. Things like “8vo, v.g./dj.” were often all you knew about the copy you were offered to buy,

After the internet descriptions became fuller and more useful. Many copies were even illustrated with photos, and if photos were necessary and not already displayed online it was always possible to ask for them to be sent as email attachments. 

Of course, the most significant change of all was in the price of books. Before the internet, common books purchased through search services were usually quite expensive relative to what they would normally sell for anywhere else.

After the internet, common books became cheap.

I could go on, but there is no need.  The point is made.  Disruption came to the world of book searching and the result, for the consumers at least, was a dramatic change for the better.  What was once impossible became possible. What was once difficult became simple.  What was once costly became cheap.  And the vast availability of books online, coupled with new and powerful tools to search for them, enabled serious bibliophiles to pursue their interests in ways that were unimaginable two decades before.

Collectors, of course, already know this – the younger ones in particular. I hear it from them often. They are happy. Many of them have come to realize that they are living in a golden age. The booksellers of my generation, however,  are not all convinced.  I still hear many of them complaining about how heavy and shiny everything has become.  I try to argue with them sometimes, but I never win.

Posted in Book Searching, International Book Buying, Rare Books, Technology & Bookselling | 4 Comments

Latest News in Girolamini Library Scandal

Those who have been following the Girolamini Library scandal may find interest in the press release received this morning and copied below, without comment:


Statement issued by the Munich auction house ZISSKA & SCHAUER dated 10 August 2013 addressed to the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, for immediate release, requesting distribution to its members


To whom it may concern


For reasons that will become apparent, and for clarification, we are issuing the following statement:


In the run-up to Auction 59 (9-11 May 2012), we were offered – through an intermediary – a valuable consignment of over four hundred books in private ownership in Italy. After careful scrutiny of the owners’ official credentials and the books themselves we said we were ready to accept the consignment.


On the evening before the auction (8 May 2012) we were informed by the Bavarian Landeskriminalamt that a number of books listed in Catalogue 59 would be confiscated on the grounds that ownership thereof was in question. As four of the books to be confiscated were from the private consignment mentioned above, to be on the safe side ZISSKA & SCHAUER decided to withdraw the whole consignment from the auction, particularly as information and rumours were spreading that there had been losses of books from the Girolamini Library in Naples. This suggested to us that there might be a connection with the consignment we had received from Italy.


The Italian authorities have been investigating the Director of the Girolamini Library and a large number of other persons accused. Among those accused is the intermediary who offered the consignment – allegedly in private ownership – to ZISSKA & SCHAUER. However, all the books in the consignment are still in Munich as no conclusive evidence has emerged to date that any of the books we received were in fact stolen from the Girolamini Library.


Quite extraordinarily, early on 2 August 2013 our Executive Director, Mr. Herbert Schauer, was taken from his apartment and arrested by the Munich criminal justice authorities. The Italian authorities had issued a European arrest warrant on the basis of self-exculpatory submissions made by a number of the accused in the Girolamini trials and had forwarded the warrant to the Bavarian authorities.


We are deeply shocked. All those who have worked with Mr. Schauer day in, day out over many years know that the accusations raised against him are preposterous, absurd and totally groundless. The auction house has immediately engaged the services of Dieter Löhr, lawyer and legal adviser to the Bundesverband Deutscher Kunstversteigerer (BDK), as legal counsel.


To ensure that preparations for Auction 62 (scheduled for 6 November 2013) are unaffected, it is essential to keep Mr. Schauer’s position occupied until he can return. Mr. Wolfgang Lacher, his business associate, will assume the role of managing director with immediate effect.


We would ask you, at this difficult juncture, for your continuing support. Rest assured that you can have every confidence in the new interim management.


Buch- und Kunstauktionshaus
Unterer Anger 15
80331 Munich



Kommuniqué des Auktionshauses ZISSKA & SCHAUER vom 10.08.2013 an den Verband Deutscher Antiquare e.V. mit der Bitte um sofortige Bekanntgabe an seine Mitglieder


Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren,


aus gegebenem Anlass halten wir es für geboten, Sie über folgendes zu unterrichten.


Zu unserer Auktion 59 vom 9. – 11. Mai 2012 wurde uns aus Italien eine kostbare Sammlung von über 400 Büchern aus Privatbesitz über einen Mittelsmann zur Versteigerung angeboten. Nach gründlicher Prüfung der vorgelegten amtlichen Ausweispapiere der Besitzer und der vorgelegten  Stücke erklärten wir uns mit der Einlieferung einverstanden.


Am Vorabend der Auktion, am 8. Mai 2012, erreichte uns die Mitteilung des Bayerischen Landeskriminalamtes, verschiedene der im Auktionskatalog 59 angebotenen Werke würden wegen ungeklärter Eigentumsverhältnisse beschlagnahmt. Da vier der angegebenen Werke aus der oben genannten italienischen Sammlung stammten, beschloss das Haus ZISSKA & SCHAUER, sicherheitshalber die gesamte Einlieferung dieses Besitzers aus der Auktion zurückzuziehen, zumal inzwischen Bücherverluste aus der Bibliothek Girolamini in Neapel bekannt geworden waren und Gerüchte kursierten, welche einen Zusammenhang mit der Einlieferung bei uns vermuten wollten.


Die italienische Justiz ermittelt seither gegen den Direktor der Bibliothek Girolamini und gegen zahlreiche Mitbeschuldigte, unter anderem auch gegen den Herrn, der uns die o.a. italienische Einlieferung aus angeblichem Privatbesitz vermittelt hatte. Die bei uns eingelieferten Bücher befinden sich allerdings nach wie vor in München, da bisher kein zweifelsfreier Nachweis erbracht wurde, dass sie tatsächlich aus der Bibliothek Girolamini gestohlen wurden.


Unfassbarerweise jedoch wurde am 2. August in der Frühe unser Geschäftsführer, Herr Herbert Schauer, aus seiner Wohnung abgeholt und per Amtshilfe der  Münchner Strafjustizbehörden in Haft genommen. Die italienische Justiz hatte aufgrund von selbstentlastenden Erklärungen einiger Beschuldigter im Girolamini-Verfahren einen “Europäischen Haftbefehl” erlassen und nach Bayern geschickt.


Wir sind erschüttert über diese Entwicklung, denn seit vielen Jahren begleiten wir die Arbeit von Herrn Schauer tagtäglich und wissen, dass die erhobenen Vorwürfe ungeheuerlich, absurd und völlig haltlos sind. Umgehend haben wir auch den Justiziar des Bundesverbandes Deutscher Kunstversteigerer e.V. (BDK), Rechtsanwalt Dieter Löhr, als Rechtsbeistand in die Vorgänge eingeschaltet.


Zur reibungslosen Fortführung unserer Arbeit in Vorbereitung unserer am 6. November 2013 anstehenden Auktion 62 war es aber erforderlich, die Position des Geschäftsführers bis zur Rückkehr von Herrn Schauer neu zu besetzen. Geschäftsführer ist ab sofort der Gesellschafter Wolfgang Lacher.


Wir bitten Sie, uns in dieser schwierigen Zeit auch weiterhin die Treue zu halten. Ihr Vertrauen zu unserem Haus wird auch unter der interimistischen Geschäftsführung von Herrn Lacher nicht enttäuscht werden.


Buch- und Kunstauktionshaus
Unterer Anger 15
80331 München
Posted in Auctions, Crime and Theft, Libraries, Rare Books | Leave a comment

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 suject 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 rememeber, 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, would begin reading through the pages, line after line, column after column, searching hopefully for any wanted book they might happen to have for sale.

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” booksearch 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 subsidize 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.

And then, almost over night, it was gone.

(To be continued…)

Posted in Book Searching | 3 Comments