viaLibri adds ISBN searching. Please ignore.

You may have noticed that a new feature has been introduced with viaLibri’s latest update. It is something many people have asked for. Most thought it should have been included a long time ago.  As in, from the beginning.  I resisted for many years, but have finally capitulated.  You are now able to search for books on viaLibri using ISBN.

Please don’t.

The reason is simple.  ISBN numbers are a terrible way to search for books.

I will certainly grant the fact that they serve an important purpose for the activities of publishers, distributors and new book stores.  I’m sure they are useful in other contexts as well, especially for those who are only interested in new books. If you inhabit a world where data is always orderly and you like the idea that books are generic objects suitable to the algorithmic demands of data processing and purchaser profiling, then ISBN is most definitely for you.  Happily, viaLibri does not yet live in that world, and I feel confident that most of its users do not want to live there either.  And they do not have to.  They do not need ISBN numbers, and are cordially invited to ignore them.

Because, as I said, ISBN numbers are a terrible way to search for books.  You will quickly discover this the first time you attempt to search online for an out-of-print book using its ISBN number and then repeat the search the old-fashioned way using author and title.  Author/title searches nearly always yield more and better results than searches based on ISBN.

The reasons for this are simple:  many of the booksellers who deal in older books do not bother with ISBNs, so the listings they put on the internet do not include them.   To a collector the information is meaningless, and the booksellers who focus on serving collectors generally share that attitude, even when they are also selling books to the general public.

But that is not the only reason why a second-hand book might be catalogued without its ISBN number.  Often a book will have a number, but it does not actually appear inside of it.  This is especially likely in the case of reprinted works that were originally published before ISBNs were firmly established. There are also many cases where the publisher didn’t obtain the ISBN until after the book was printed, or just didn’t think it was worth including as part of the text.  In all of these cases the book is very likely to be catalogued without its ISBN, and if you search for it using that ISBN there will be many available copies that you will not find .

A few examples pulled from my personal reference shelf will demonstrate.

You might, for instance, want to buy a copy of BOOKBINDING IN AMERICA 1680 – 1910. FROM THE COLLECTION OF FREDERICK E. MASER, published in 1983.  The ISBN number for this book is 0813910137, although it is nowhere to be found within the book itself.  But if you don’t have the number already you will have no trouble finding it by looking in WorldCat or an ISBN database.   If you use that number to search for your copy on viaLibri you will get 12 listings.  Only two copies are available for less than $25, both of them from Amazon.  However, if you try your search again, while ignoring the ISBN, and search instead for: title = “BOOKBINDING IN AMERICA MASER COLLECTION”,  you will receive 39 matches, including 3 additional copies that are priced for less than $25.  This is a significant difference in results.

Or, suppose you stumbled upon a reference to the 4 volume set of ARTS IN AMERICA, A BIBLIOGRAPHY, edited by Bernard Karpel and published by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1979.  Suppose you could not resist the impulse to buy a set of your own.   If your reference did not give you the ISBN number (0874745780)  WorldCat will, as will many other online sources.   It is also printed in the book.  The 10 digits seem so precise and unambiguous. It is easy to think that they would be the logical way to find your copy.  Please do not be fooled.    If you use those numbers for your search parameter you will find only 66 matches (including many odd volumes and duplicates)  and there will be no complete sets available in North America for less than $45.  If, on the other hand, you try your search using author and title you will, instead, be rewarded with a total of 104 matches, including five complete sets in North America selling for $40 or less.  The ISBN matches will still be there, but so will many others that would have otherwise been missed.

These are not the only good reasons for ignoring ISBNs.  For me, the most compelling reason is the potential for discovery.  You can’t always know whether the ISBN you are using will correspond with the best possible version of the book you are interested in.  What if there is a later enlarged edition that has a new ISBN?  You would not find out about the updated version if you did your searching with the ISBN of the earlier edition.   The author/title search would quickly let you know.

Sometimes, when you use author and title to search for one book the results you receive will also show you another, different work by the same author that could also be of interest.   With ISBNs you rarely discover anything you are not specifically looking for.  With names and words you may find something unexpected that is even more interesting than the book you thought you wanted.

I would also mention the problem of typos, a problem that comes from both buyer and seller.  These, of course, can happen anywhere, but they are much harder to notice and correct when it is only a string of numbers that have been mistyped.

Are there circumstances where only searching  by ISBN is worthwhile?  Very few.

It might sometimes be useful to check for strays after the old-fashioned author/title search had been tried.  This might find a copy of a book with a typo or other cataloguing error that might otherwise be missed.  Anything is possible.

Sometimes students are assigned text-books that are being continually “updated” by their publishers with new ISBNs.  In this case the student will only want a copy with the correct ISBN.  Used copies that are listed without this information will not be satisfactory, so searching by number would not exclude anything the searcher would want to buy.

Lastly, I have been told that there are online listings of books entered using non-Roman alphabets and that, unless you have a special keyboard, these books can only easily be found using ISBN numbers.  Having never encountered such a book during my own extensive burrowing through online data I am a bit sceptical that such listings actually exist. But I do not rule it out.

It is with these special circumstances in mind that the latest change was made.  I hope it will be regarded as an improvement.  But I still worry that people will actually use it for a purpose it does not serve.

At least I can tell myself that you, patient reader, have been warned.


Posted in viaLibri, viaLibri User Guide | Leave a comment

May we please have our description back?

Plagiarism has been in the air lately.  Its latest draft blows our way from a recent report in the Guardian about an award-winning poet whose award-winning poem (with many others) turns out to have been written by someone else.  And he wasn’t even the first prize-winning British copy-cat poet this year.

You might expect otherwise, but the latest victim, Canadian poet Colin Morton, is more puzzled than angered by what seems to be a growing trend. Why steal a poem, of all things? Well, there was a prize, but the imposter has had to give it back.  It has not been mentioned whether Morton now gets the prize money instead. He is probably disqualified by some technicality, but I doubt he will complain. Poets are like that.

And besides, in most cases when this sort of thing comes to light the author whose work was cribbed does not actually suffer as a consequence.  If anything, his stature is enhanced and his creative work receives public attention that might never have come to it otherwise. It was, after all, the poem’s previous lack of recognition that made it suitable for theft.  No more.  One can well imagine that it has been read more times during the  last two weeks than during the first 30 years following its publication.   Its author has become, for the moment at least, a celebrity among his peers

All of which I would not have thought worth commenting on if it had not been for a book we almost bought at about the same time.

The book was Les Jardins Precieux by Raymond Charmaison, a copy of which appeared at auction in Paris last week. It is a book we know well.  There is not much to it in the way of text, but the 8 large plates are a tour de force of pochoir color printing. It is a beautiful book that begs for display, or, unfortunately,  for sacrifice to the framer.  If you happen to be in possession of a copy of Hinck & Wall Catalogue # 54 (“Garden History,” copyright 2002) you will find a lengthier and even more enthusiastic description of it at item number 29.  For those who do not have a copy readily at hand I will reproduce our description here:

Edition limited to 300 numbered copies. Illustrated with eight stunning pochoir plates colored by Jean Saudé. Each plate presents a garden view focused on a special garden feature – a yew walk, an oil jar, a berceau, etc. – rendered in the richest colors of the pochoir technique: for example, the “Salle Verte” is a profound green hedge room with a yellow sky and a pool reflecting all the green variation as well as the vibrant color combinations of the flower plantings in the setting; the rose trellis is set against a star-lit, full-mooned midnight blue sky, again with pool reflections and with a rich parterre and border planting colors. These imaginary “Precious Gardens” are a testament to the power of the printed book as a vehicle for transporting the viewer/reader into the garden and a world of dreams. As Henri Régnier observes in the book’s gold-printed preface, “Il contient quelques feuilles avec des lignes and des couleurs, à peine les aurez vous considerées que vous serez transporté dans un pays de lumière et de soliel...” Pierre Corrard, novelist and poet, established his publishing house in 1912 and began working with such noted illustrators of the day as Georges Barbier, Charles Martin and A.E. Marty. After his death his wife, Nicole Corrard, resumed his publishing efforts under the name “Collection Pierre Corrard. Successive issues of “ALBUM DES MODES ET MANIERES D’AUJOURD’HUI and similar luxury productions made the house’s fame. Much as their luxurious pochoir renderings of fashion designs helped express the artistry of French haute couture during this period, so did the stunning plates of LES JARDINS PRÉCIEUX give graphic expression to the new artistic visions of the “jardins d’artiste.”

It is, I think I can say, a nice book. We had easily sold our first copy and so thought we might like to buy another.   Naturally, before making a bid, we checked on viaLibri to see if any other copies might already be for sale.  We were not surprised to discover that there were.  What did surprise us, however, was how familiar the descriptions sounded.   Ann Marie had written our catalogue description over 10 years ago, but she immediately recognized her own words and comments in the current listings she found online.

Ignoring the framed prints, there were, in fact, two different copies offered for sale, and each of them included significant chunks that had apparently been copied from our original description. But not all the same chunks. In neither case had we been consumed whole. Instead, we had served more as a banquet at which the two cataloguers had each picked out just those dishes that appealed to them the most.  Some other parts were, on the other hand, completely ignored.  Perhaps those were parts that we still needed to improve.  We were never told. But if you are curious to know the parts which did satisfy the standards of these particular copy cats you will find them in boldface in the excerpt above.

All this is nothing new.  I probably would not have thought about it further if I had not made this discovery on the same day that I read the story in the Guardian.   At first I looked at the obvious parallels and thought that, in some diluted way, our copied catalogue description might be like a stolen poem.  I quickly realized, however, that it is not.

In truth, no one can steal a poem.  Once you have written it and shown it to the world you can always put your name on it and claim it for your own.  And that seems to be true of almost any published work that later comes into the grasp of a plagiarist.  Once the author reclaims his authorship the plagiarist is readily exposed.  An author never loses the ability to republish or recite what is rightfully his.

But I now see that there is an exception…

Once a catalogue description has been copied online it is, for all intents and purposes, no longer available to its creator.  In our case, we can no longer use our description of Les Jardins Precieux.  How could we?  If we tried to catalogue another copy our potential customers would almost certainly do what we did: they would check first to see what other copies were available online.  Doing this they would find two others  described with the same words we were presenting as our own.  Two thirds of our description would appear to be plagiarized from other booksellers.  Any expertise or integrity we might previously have had in our customers eyes would be destroyed.  That is something we dare not risk.


As I said before, plagiarism is nothing new.   The internet has, however, significantly changed its dynamics, both for the good and the bad.  Much of the commentary about Morton’s stolen poem focused on this.   One the one hand,  the plagiarist is presumed to have found the poems (there were many) by searching online.  This is certainly where the lazy booksellers hunt and trap.  A quick cut and paste and it’s theirs.  They will not always be foolish enough to copy current online listings, but any unlisted item that can be found by Google is regarded as fair game, especially if it doesn’t show up on the first one or two pages of results.

On the other hand, the internet is an equally powerful tool for discovering that copying has taken place.  The first stolen poem discovered in the most recent case was recognized  by its author at an online poetry site.  After that, it only took an hour to find a dozen more.  Obviously, internet search tools make this sort of thing much harder to get away with.  It may mean the end of an era, at least as far as poetry plagiarism is concerned.

It is an encouraging thought, and it inevitably lead me to wonder whether internet search engines might not at some point also bring a similar benefit to antiquarian booksellers.  Unfortunately, I tend to think not, at least as things stand now.   The reason is that, in order for the plagiarists to be easily exposed, the original material that they copy must be easily found.  At present, booksellers do everything they can to keep their descriptions off of the internet once the books are sold.  They do this precisely because they do not want others to copy them.   But the plagiarists will find them anyway, especially if they also once appeared in printed catalogues, as much of the most useful specialist material has always done.  By hiding their intellectual property from easy online discovery the only thing they really accomplish is making it safer for plagiarists  to use their material without fear of exposure.  Hiding material from search engines will become an increasingly futile task as the age of Big Data rolls forward. In the long run, the only protection that will work will be one that makes is it harder and harder for plagiarism to go undetected when it occurs.

Most booksellers claim copyright for their catalogue contents, and a few even threaten legal action against violators.  The law may be on their side, but I have never heard of a bookseller actually taking a plagiarism claim to court.  Copyright is, it seems, a useless protection.

But I have an idea for something that might actually provide the protection that copyright alone does not.  As you might expect, it involves, once again, the internet.  If that is where the crimes are now being committed, that is where we should put our cops to work.  What I have in mind is a descriptive bibliographic database where booksellers can publish all their copyrighted descriptions in a way that clearly establishes priority and ownership.  It would be a public place where you can claim what is yours.  But it would also be much more than that.  If enough booksellers participated, an open searchable database of this nature would soon constitute a valuable bibliographic reference that collectors, librarians, students and scholars could use for all types of research.  It would make a useful permanent resource out of information that is now mostly ephemeral.  It would also be a magnet for anyone with an interest in old books.  An entry could be freely quoted, but only with complete and unambiguous attribution to the bookseller who was its source.    This wouldn’t make it impossible to plagiarize, but any booksellers who tried to use these descriptions as if they were their own would be soon exposed.  Once established, I would expect the incidence of plagiarism in book cataloguing to decline dramatically, at least among any booksellers who hoped to claim a reputation for expertise and integrity.

And if such a database existed today we would still be able to use our own words to describe our next copy of Les Jardins Precieux.

This is my suggestion.  I think it is a good idea.  As it happens, I also have the means to put such a thing in place, but only if I knew that there were others who agreed and were willing to join in.  I am now, as they say “all ears”.




Posted in Copyright, Google, Rare Books, viaLibri | 10 Comments

Hinck & Wall Recent Arrivals just posted

I have been neglectful of my blogging recently.  Among my excuses is our latest list of “Recent Arrivals,”  which is now available for browsing on our ancient Hinck & Wall bookselling site.

It is mostly books on Architecture, Design and Decorative Arts.  Garden books are on hold for our next list, which we hope will not take as long to finish as this last one.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Will Google “retire” Google Books too?

A few days ago I received an email message from Google; or, to be more precise, from one of its many children, the one named Google Affiliate Network.  They were writing to let me know that Google now feels it has better things to do and will be closing GAN at the end of July.  They did not mention being sorry.  One of our regular advertisers pays us through GAN, so both of us will now have to move someplace else. A new and unexpected job has been added to my hopelessly long to-do list.  I will survive; but it makes me grumpy.

Google has been doing this sort of thing a lot lately.  Quite recently, Google Reader was similarly “retired” (that’s the word they used with GAN),  and iGoogle was retired a few weeks before that.  In fact, there is a long list of products that Google has launched (or bought), ballyhooed, grown bored with, and closed.  The editors at Slate even maintain a virtual graveyard where you can visit the Google family burial plots and leave flowers on the tombstones of the “retired” products and services you mourn the most.

All of which inevitably makes me wonder when the bell may also toll for Google Books.  Until recently that thought would never have crossed my mind.  Google always seemed like some rich uncle who could afford anything and always arrived for holidays with extravagant presents for everyone.  Cost was never an issue. He always grabbed the check . He did it because he could.  That’s just the way he was.

But now I see that sometimes uncle wants something in return. Its not just money, and not even gratitude and market dominence will always be enough.  At least that’s what seems to have been the case with Google Reader, which will leave a huge vacuum in its wake.   Its hard to imagine that it could have been such a drag on the P&L that it needed to be killed.  If it had been a venture-backed start-up, with comparable traffic and market share, it could  surely have been sold for eight or nine figures.  It could have made money if it wanted to.  It was valuable and loved.  But Google did not even care to sell it.  Apparently it lost interest because it decided that RSS feeds were just too yesterday to bother with any more.  They were no longer cool, or hot, or a challenge.  So they are going to nail it in a coffin and put it in the ground.

It had not occured to me that Google might be fickle.  Until now.  And I probably wouldn’t think twice about it if the only things at stake were browser tools and internet utilities.   Making our vast printed heritage fully accesible to a digital future is, however, something altogether different.   The thought that this massive and essential project may be in the hands of a fickle steward has now given me pause.

So I have to ask, what happens if Google decides it has also become bored with old books?  They are, after all, the most thoroughly “yesterday” of all content media.  The idea of digitizing and indexing the holdings of most of the world’s major research libraries seemed breath-taking a decade ago. Now it seems merely necessary and inevitable.  The thrill and audacity of the project are now long past.  The innovation is done.  The glory has been claimed and spent.  All that remains is the slow and tedious execution, accompanied by a swelling chorus of  disatisfaction with the shoddy results.  And, of course, the expense.

I might be more optimistic if I believed that Google’s founders had originally understood the nature of the thing they wanted to create; that they had understood not just how it should be built, but why.   But I don’t.  Sergey Brin’s own defense of Google Books, published in a 2009 Op-Ed article in the New York Times, makes clear what a naive stranger he was to the world of libraries and out-of-print books.  Several  quotes from that fascinating piece could be called up as testimony here, but my favorite must certainly be this:

 “Today, if you want to access a typical out-of-print book, you have only one choice — fly to one of a handful of leading libraries in the country and hope to find it in the stacks.”

So, clearly, he didn’t have a clue.

Until it is retired I will, of course, continue to use Google Books and be ever thankful for the blessings it bestows.  But I do not expect to have it around for long; and I doubt, in the end, that it will matter.  The great march of digitization will still proceed. The work will be done regardless, and it will, in the end, be lead by people and institutions who understand the importance of what they are doing. They will not get bored.  I do love Google Books now, but will not regret it’s demise.

And neither, I suspect, will Sergey.  He has his own plane.

Posted in Google, Libraries | Tagged | 1 Comment

viaLibri User Guide: Translation (2)

There was a second translation-related  inquiry that I mentioned in my previous post, and I now finally have a chance to return to that unfinished thread.  The question was similar to others I receive from time to time.  It read…

I would like to purchase a book from [German bookselling site] but do not speak or read German. From what I can gather they are not a typical book dealer but an intermediary between someone who has a book and someone who wants to purchase a book.
Can you think of a way to make this transaction for me?
Please let me know what I can do.

The idea of buying something from someone who does not speak your language does seem intimidating.  In my experience, however, language is an ever diminishing obstacle to buying a book, no matter where you might find it for sale in the world.  I personally speak neither Italian nor Spanish, but have purchased several items from both countries without any real linguistic difficulties.

It is all especially easy if English is your native language.  English has become the lingua franca of the international book trade, as it has for the internet itself.  There are very few booksellers offering books on the internet who do not speak enough English to transact sales online.   But even if they do not, it is rarely necessary to put their language skills to test, because the sites through which they sell their books nearly always offer an option for using their site and shopping cart in English (and often other languages as well).  Sometimes you have to hunt for the little English flag, but with all the multi-dealer sites that you can search on viaLibri an English language option is always somewhere to be found.

So it is generally possible to buy a book from a German seller without ever needing or seeing an umlaut.  If the bookselling site insists that you communicate directly with the bookseller (unusual), or if you have some specific questions that need answering before you are ready to commit, it is likely that the bookseller will be able to answer them in perfectly understandable English (and maybe other languages as well).  If he somehow avoided English in school, he will certainly be familiar with Google Translator.  And, as a last resort, you can always use Google Translator yourself, both to send your message and read the response.

In fact, if you are an American,  your biggest problem might not come from an inability to communicate, but from the fact that some European booksellers will not accept credit cards and will want you to send them an IBAN bank transfer instead.  This is, in fact, generally the best and safest way to pay for something within Europe, but American banks don’t participate in this system and their customers often don’t know anything about it.  If the seller only accepts IBAN or a national check then you may be out of luck.

Of course, it is always possible that you will end up wanting to purchase a book from one of the particularly anachronistic and idiosyncratic individuals who still seem drawn to our trade.  He – for it’s almost always a “he”- may decide it’s not worth the effort to deal with someone who requires both translation and transatlantic shipping.  A bottle of schaps, or the regional equivalent, will probably have been consulted in this deliberation.  In this case you may not be able to buy the book no matter how hard you try.  This will certainly be a frustration, but perhaps also a blessing.  Personal experience has taught me that any bookseller who will not go to enormous effort to consummate a sale to a willing customer is likely to have trouble with any number of other activities that also require effort, such as verifying that a book has its full complement of plates, or making note of the fact that an offered item has been rebound in plastic and vigorously decorated with library stamps.   These may potentially be encountered in any country where books are sold.  A filter for avoiding them is not necessarily a bad thing.

Fortunately, the vast majority of booksellers are eager to make sales and will expend whatever effort is necessary to satisfy any customer who may come their way.  This, more than anything else, is why a lack of common language between buyer and seller is rarely an obstacle to buying a good book.  Finding the book in the first place is the only real challenge.

There is more to say about this subject (international book buying) and I hope to return to it soon.

Posted in International Book Buying, viaLibri, viaLibri User Guide | Tagged | Leave a comment

viaLibri User Guide: Translation

Yesterday, as I was ruminating over suitable subjects for my next blog post, I received, out of the blue, two email inquiries that related to different aspects of the same larger issue: how to deal with the unavoidably multi-lingual nature of the increasingly internationalized antiquarian book market.  After firing off quick, brief answers to the immediate questions, I started to think about some of the broader issues and realized that the subject for this post (and probably a few follow-ups) had been chosen for me.  One email might just be a suggestion, but two emails I can only interpret as a command.

But before I let myself be distracted by the Big Picture, I should first deal with the more practical questions that initiated the two emails I received.  The answers may prove helpful to others, and they will, in any case, make suitable entries to the viaLibri User’s Guide which has now officially become a Work-in-Progress.

The first email read:

I love ViaLibri, and I think it’s great that you have the “translate” button for descriptions of books on sale by foreign dealers writing in their native languages. I find that lately, however, when I use the button, I get a notice saying that the page is “already in English.”  No, it’s not, or I wouldn’t need the translate button! Is there any way you can fix this??

I can claim no credit for the marvel that is Google Translate.  I’m just happy to have found a way to hook it into our search results so that we can generate quickie translations as easily as possible.  Our latest general feature update several months ago incorporated an update in Google Translate that enables it to determine, on its own, the languages you are translating from and to.  It recognizes over 60 languages.  I can only guess how this is done. I assume that GT just reads the selected text, counts all the words that appear in each of its 60+ dictionaries,  and then concludes that the language with the most matches is the one you are translating from.  For most purposes that should be pretty reliable.  It can get complicated, however, when a book is being described which was written in one language, but described in another.  If the title is long and in English, and fewer words in the description belong to another language, then GT may decide that English is the language you want your text translated from. But if it sees that English is also the language you want your text to be translated to,  then it will put on its smarty-pants and tell you that your text is already in English and you should stop bothering it with stupid requests.   Unlike  C-3PO (who, by the way, could translate over 6 million languages) Google Translator has not been programmed for diplomacy.   Being the progeny of geniuses, it comes to our assistance with the presumption that the rest of us are really not all that smart.  Another more gracious machine might think to ask us, in light of the apparent matching of source and target languages, whether we might not want to suggest another language to translate instead.    Perhaps  it would even offer suggestions of its own.  But  for the moment it is content to just note our silly error and be done with it.

Fortunately, it does still provide us with the ability to take matters into our own hands.  In the header bar that holds the various translating tools there is drop-down menu that allows you to select, for translation, the language of your choice.  As you look at it, the tool labeled “From” will read “detect language.” Clicking on the button next to it, however, will reveal a long list of languages you can also try.

Using that menu, you can select a different  language to translate.  But that only gets you half-way there.  To actually generate the translation you want you need to then go to the other (right) side of the header, where it says “View,” and find  the “button”  (They want to get rid of buttons that look like buttons, you know.  We can’t stop them.)  marked “Translation.”  Click on it and you will have the translated page you want.

You may find this technique useful in other circumstances as well.  It is possible, for example, that the book you are interested in is described in a foreign language you are comfortable with, but some other part of it – the title, for instance – is in a language you do not read at all. An early Latin treatise offered by a French bookseller, for instance.  In that case the Google Translator will translate the French into English without the slightest snort.  But if you really want the Latin translation you can go up to the scrolling “From” list, pick out “Latin” instead of “Detect Language,” and repeat the exercise described above.

None of this is meant to suggest that the translations you will receive here are not filled with errors and sometimes laughable in their mistakes.   But I assume that everyone knows that by now.  They can still be very handy and save lots of time that would otherwise be spent digging through a bi-lingual dictionary to find equally uncertain results.

One additional note. While working out the answer to this question, I have realized that a tendency for Google Translate to treat as English a page that is really in another language may stem from the fact that Google is also reading and counting the words in the viaLibri menu at the top of the page. “Home,” “Search Manager,” “Libraries,” etc. are all English words that get counted when deciding what language the original page represents.  I hadn’t noticed this before.  Fortunately, it is something I can easily fix.  The menu options  are unnecessary here and I just need to remove them.  I have put it on the list.

And there is still that second emailed question to consider, but I think it will have to wait for another day.

Posted in viaLibri | Tagged | Leave a comment

Two hundred years and still searching.

I received an email the other day from one of my favorite librarians at one of my favorite libraries.  The original cause for writing is unimportant, but on a cold gray day I got a big boost out of something that was mentioned at the end.

The library in question, the Redwood Library in Newport, Rhode Island, is one of the oldest in North America.  Its original collection consisted of 751 titles shipped  from London in 1749, plus 126 additional early donations “by Several Gentlemen”.    To modern collecting tastes these are not particularly exciting books, but that is also unimportant. They are of interest to me, however, as a demonstration of the fact that books, even run-of-the-mill reprints,  are so much more vulnerable and hard to replace than the buildings that shelter and attempt to protect them; because in this case, while the library itself still stands, the collection it originally housed was stolen, destroyed or dispersed within a few decades of its original formation.

The loss, I should add, was quickly perceived.  For over two centuries now the successive librarians in charge have been working hard to replace the lost volumes and recreate the collection they started with over 250 years ago.   The list of missing volumes has been widely distributed and no sale list or catalogue of 18th century books arrives at the library without close scrutiny.  Acquisition funds have been available.  Scouts are on the hunt. Two hundred years is a long time to look for a book, and yet over 90 items (out of 877) still elude the empty shelf space that is waiting for them.

Libribot wants a shot at that list.  And it is going to get it.

I am curious to see how hard to find those books are actually going to be. I’ll let you know.


Posted in Libraries, Libribot, Rare Books, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Let the wild blogging begin….

Welcome to my blog.

It is newly launched, and I am happy that you have found it. I will do my best to reward your attention, but a word of warning may first be in order:  this will not be your customary bibliocentric blog.  Entertaining literary anecdotes and photos of rare things to covet or marvel at may occasionally slip into the frame, but they will not be the norm.  If this is what you are hoping for then I am sorry to disappoint  (But do check the blogroll).

My postings here will, instead, most often be directed  at a subject of much more limited appeal: the increasingly busy intersection of old books and digital technology.  It is a place I find myself regularly approaching from all directions – as book buyer and bookseller, as programmer and as the operator of a website dedicated to making the internet a useful tool for bibliophiles.  It is an intersection where I believe important things are now happening with an impact we have only just begun to see and understand.  My various occupations take me through that intersection every day, and over time I have persuaded myself that some of the things I observe there may possibly be of interest to others.   Perhaps even you.  You don’t need to be a confessed bibliophile.  It is enough if you care about books,  especially the old ones.  If you do, then I hope I will occasionally have something worthwhile for you to read.  Here. In my new blog.

And if searching for old books on the internet is one of your regular activities, then I hope to have a few tips that will help you along.

But I also have a few practical objectives to serve.  As you may already know, I am the person responsible for a website named viaLibri that helps people find old and rare books on the internet.  While I am gratified by the number of people who use it regularly I am also  frustrated to see how many of its most helpful features are only rarely put to use.  That frustration is compounded when I receive pleasant emails saying things like “I love viaLibri, and would be thrilled if it could also do ____.” As often as not I can only write back to say “Actually, it does do_____.  Just go there and click that.”

But what about the people who never write?

I have only myself to blame for this, of course.  If regular users don’t know about something they can do with viaLibri then it can only be because I have not effectively shown it to them.  I hope to rectify that here.  I would love to sit down and write a user’s guide to finding old books on the internet, but I know full well that I will never find the time. Perhaps, however, I can accumulate one.  Perhaps I can put together a user’s guide in the form of an archive of categorized blog posts written spontaneously over time.  How to do this; where to find that.  Each in its own separate post, organized in a sidebar,  perhaps even linked to the site itself.  It could useful.  At least that is what I have been telling myself.  If you would like to encourage such a project then please tell me about a topic you think I should undertake.  It would be great to hear from you.

With that I think my plate will be full enough.  At least for now.


Posted in Shameless self-promotion, viaLibri | 2 Comments