Hello and welcome to Stacking Up, a blog for the "modern" librarian! The great thing about today's librarians is that we are so diverse: different ages, backgrounds, personalities, looks... this blog is here to share this diversity with ideas, insights, stories, experiences and opinions for anything and everything having to do with being a librarian!

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Future of Book Collecting

Probably one of the most fascinating and memorable experiences I took away from my two years as a library student involved a trip to the Special Collections and Research Center of Syracuse University, where the Curator of Rare Books and one of our professors gave us a tour of some of the treasures included in the Rare Book Collection of E.S. Bird Library. I can remember sitting there, craning my neck to get a better view of some of the physical remnants of literary history, wishing I could actually hold those relics in my own hands.

There were 12th-century illuminated manuscripts, hand-written and hand-painted with illustrations so bright and vivid that they could have been completed only yesterday. There were stone cuneiform tablets over 4,000 years old, first editions of Alice and Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, and-- my absolute favorite that made me positively green with envy-- a small prayer book that once belonged to Queen Elizabeth I. It even had notes in her own hand in the margins.

With the advent of ebooks and the increasing trend towards digital formats, I have been wondering lately: exactly what is the future of book collecting? In an age of digital book formats where copies are absolutely limitless and one edition can be created, multiplied and destroyed in a matter of seconds, what will become of our dusty first editions that make us feel privileged to own, or even see in person? Will there still exist editions in the book world that are both unique and difficult to obtain? And finally, should we even care, as long as the written word is universally accessible to as many people as possible? Should there even exist certain editions of books that only a few privileged people/institutions are lucky enough to own? Or is the democratization of books a trend that supersedes the singularity and particular qualities that make certain books unique and irreplaceable?

I actually had some difficulty finding anything on the WWW about this issue of the proliferation of ebooks and its impact on physical book collecting. I did find one interesting blog post, titled 100 Years Ago; Or, The Future of Book Collecting-- I am not sure of the author, but his blog can be found at A New Look at Old Books. The post gives some interesting opinions about where book collecting is headed, given the trends toward book-digitizing:
  • "Now, for the first time ever, the book itself is under threat. Over the next ten years the public will be asked to choose which we want, carbon or silicon, paper or screens."
  • "Book collecting will only survive if new collectors take it up and they will only do that if they have some sort of relationship with books."
  • "When there’s nobody left to appreciate a binding or care about condition or pay extra for a first edition then our books will become worthless clutter like shellac 78s and worn out clothes."
I feel like this perspective is a little bit too doom-and-gloom, and that the popularity of ebook readers does not necessarily mean the demise of book collecting altogether. But I do wonder about the future of first editions and rare editions- will they even exist any more in the sense that they have for hundreds of years? Will there even be such a thing as a "rare edition" in the future when it is so easy now to digitally recreate millions of copies of a book? And should books still be considered as "treasures," or should they all be commonplace and equally available to everyone?

I really only have one "treasure" in my own personal library at home-- and I cherish it as one of my most prized possessions. It is a 1929 edition of Edgar Allen Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination, illustrated by Harry Clarke. The book is in almost perfect condition and still has all of its color plates intact. (Note: the picture to the right is not my own copy, but it is an image of the same edition.) My grandma picked it up years ago at a used book sale for $0.25. Today this book is worth over $400 in good condition. I coincidentally caught an episode of the Antiques Roadshow that had my book showcased one evening, and to my utter surprise and delight, I found out just how valuable my edition was!

I don't think that any ebook could take away the inherent value of the physical book. Isn't there just something inexplicable about having a rare edition that is hard to find and expensive to acquire? And isn't there something to cherish and love in that old dog-eared, beat-up copy of your favorite book that you've taken with you everywhere and read over and over again countless times?

Ebooks are great and they have a definite place in today's market and today's society, but for me personally, nothing will ever replace The Book in its physical form. It is completely irreplaceable and has an inherent value that can not be supplanted by digitization. For this reason, I really don't know what the future of book collecting will look like, but I think it will be a very long time before physical books are completely replaced by ebooks, or digital copies take the place of physical ones in the heart of the book lover. Maybe that's a sentimental viewpoint that holds little weight in the face of huge publishing companies out to make a profit, but I think it's fair to say that plenty of people still can and do appreciate the unique qualities of a rare book. I can only hope that somehow, some way, future generations will still be able to see their worth as well.


  1. "I don't think that any ebook could take away the inherent value of the physical book."

    I think you said it all with that one statement. I do love the convenience of my ereader, and I do love the portability it bestows upon 1000 page tomes, but there's nothing quite like finding that long sought after treasure at a garage sale or a used bookstore.

    Physical books have a look and a feel to them that I hope is never lost. I'll often buy a physical AND an electronic copy of authors I love, but it becomes expensive. I would love to see more publishers would offer free or deeply discounted ebook versions with the purchase of the physical book, to satisfy convenience and collectability.

  2. Sally~

    I have never used an e-reader (although I am interested, but they're just so expensive!) I can see their benefits and why they have become so popular. I might invest in one eventually... still, there's nothing like curling up on the sofa with an actual book. And really, a room is just not as cozy without bookshelves lines with your favorite ones! Maybe I am just sentimental over the medium, or maybe I just can't get myself to re-define The Book in new terms.

    I do think there is some kind of connection that people have with their books, that they just can't get from an e-reader. Or maybe that's just my opinion, maybe you can get sentimental about your e-reader too :)

    Anyways, thanks so much for leaving your thoughts! And yes, it would be nice to have the best of both worlds at a more affordable price! Books and e-books work well together because they both have something to offer: I don't think one will replace the other for that reason.

  3. Save your money Lea. My prediction is that e readers as we know them will go the way of the Dodo Bird. Smartphones will do the job in the future.

    I just hope that the publishing industry doesn't cave in. Imagine one day having all the literature of the world on a thumb drive! And then loosing it in cab. ;)

  4. Oh and btw. I have that exact same '29 copy of Tales of Mystery and Imagination. It's one of my prized books also.