Tuesday, April 06, 2004

The collector's lot

Younger readers may not realise how completely the business of collecting books has been transformed by the internet. And older readers may not be aware of the range of tools which are now available to the buyer of secondhand books. So here are a few comments.

Even as recently as ten years ago, a book collector had to be something of a detective. Suppose, for example, you were interested in buying books about cookery, published in England between, let us say, 1900 and 1950. Well, first you had to find a list of secondhand and antiquarian bookdealers. Then you had to go through the list, making a note of those who stated that they specialised, to some extent, in cookery. Then you had to write to them and ask them for their latest catalogue. If you wanted to do your own research into books which had actually been published in that period, you would have to go to a first-class public library (or better still the library of a good university) engage the help of a friendly librarian, and start poking around, as best you could, in such eye-taxing tomes as the British Museum catalogue of printed books, British Books in Print, the catalogue of the London Library, and so forth. If, as a result of this research, you were able to draw up a 'wants' list, as opposed to just looking at what was sent to you in dealers' catalogues, then you had to photocopy the list, post it off to various dealers, and wait. Sometimes you had to wait for years.

Today, all is changed. Suppose you are looking for Making toast for beginners by Jane Smith. Today you just go to a site called abebooks, type in the title and author, and, unless you are looking for something very obscure, you will be shown a list of several bookdealers, some of them abroad, who have copies for sale. Sometimes there are as many as 30 copies available.

Within the last few weeks, for instance, I have found an excellent copy of a book first published in 1896, at a modest £18, and another book published in 1933 for £14. Twenty years ago I would have had a struggle to locate either of these.

You can still have the doubtful pleasure of searching through dusty rooms in creaky old buildings, if that appeals, because sometimes you will find some unexpected treasures that way. But suppose you aren't quite sure what might be available on your subject, and want to do some research on that. Well, once again, it's all available with a few clicks of the mouse.

You can go to the British Library Public Catalogue, for instance, where they have a list of virtually every book ever published in the UK. You can go to COPAC, which is a useful combination of the catalogues of every major UK university library, plus the BLPC. And you can, if you wish, find out what the Americans were up to by looking through the Library of Congress catalogue. All of these search tools have their limitations, and their little peculiarities, and often the listed details don't tell you nearly as much as you would like to know. But, ten years ago, you would have been hard put even to imagine that such search facilities might be made accessible to you from within your own home.

As for circulating your wants list - well, once again it's all done on the internet. Abebooks and Amazon both offer facilities.

Collecting books is no longer the trial that it once was. All you need these days is a computer and lots of money.

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