Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Bibliogra-what? Why bother? Books is Books, Right? Physical, Digital… One’s as Good as the Next…

Last night, I took an hour or so off from PowerPointing to watch Michael F. Suarez’s webcast presentation on “The Ecosystems of Book History: Acting Locally, Thinking Globally”.  Suarez’s presentation was a part of last year’s Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair and his presentation is now hosted online on the website of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA).  You can see it for yourself here.  

Suarez, a bibliographer par excellence and expert on the history of the 17th and 18th century book in all its manifestations, is the Director of the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.  He is the co-author of “The Oxford Companion to the Book (2010), a million-word reference work on the history of books and manuscripts from the invention of writing to the present day. “  In short, he is an expert.  

In his spare time, he is a professor at Fordham University and also at Oxford University in England (commuting between the two locations).  He is also a Jesuit priest and the co-general editor of The Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins (8 volumes, Oxford University Press, 2005–13).

Suarez, with two Bachelor’s degrees, four Master’s degrees and a Ph.D., is no slouch. He is, as we say, a pretty busy guy.  Plus, when he speaks, he’s both entertaining and worth listening to.

What was the “take away” from his presentation? 

That books themselves – those physical objects made up of paper, ink and glue - have unique value as artifacts, not just as containers of information.  And that booksellers, bibliographers and book collectors (especially those who catalogue and collect the rare and ephemeral publications of earlier times) add, by their very work, important value to the universe of information through “contextualization” and “resonance”.

What is this “contextualization and resonance” stuff?  Simply put, it means that a good cataloguer, be it a bookseller or private collector, who takes the time to investigate the object that is a book or pamphlet and then to accurately describe it – not only physically, but also in terms of importance to its time, its subject area and to other similar works – adds an immense amount to the body of knowledge.  “Contextualization” simply means placing the book, pamphlet or manuscript  in its proper time and place and “resonance” means placing it with other similar objects, thus making it clear that the more “like” objects are assembled in one place, the greater the likelihood that scholars will discover something of value.  Note that we’re talking “objects” here – that is, real books.

This is why, for example, genealogists travel to Salt Lake City, Fort Wayne, Indiana or Washington, D.C. The institutional collections that are found there have both “contextualization” and “resonance”.  

Well, sort of.

While the “resonance” part is pretty apparent – sheer volume can create a kind of resonance - , the “contextualization” part is a bit harder to locate.  Turns out, that while librarians and archivists do a bang-up job of actually cataloguing material, at least bibliographically, they often come up short on the “contextualization” part.  Of course, that’s not surprising, since contextualization is not their job. 

That’s a bookseller/ book collector skill set.

For example, very few – if any – descriptions found in library catalogues look like the detailed well-researched descriptions found in antiquarian book dealer catalogues.  Library catalogues tend to be “bare bones” facts about the book – the title, author and publishing information.  As a result, the researcher – who may come to the library catalogue with very little background knowledge about a particular book - gets very little “value added” and learns very little about the book itself, about why it was written, whether it was considered important or accurate in its time, and whether or not the author was considered a giant in his or her field or a charlatan.

Frankly, you don’t go to a library catalogue to learn what’s considered a “reliable source” any more than you would go to Wikipedia for the definitive information on a medical topic.

Schlock and garbage sit on library shelves – side by side with treasures and high spots.  In fact, since librarians like to remain “neutral” and “intellectually apolitical”, the wheat and the chaff often get shelved pretty close together. That way, nobody gets upset that the librarian is favoring one side over the other.  The “patron”, researcher or visiting scholar is expected to bring his or her own set of skills to bear in sorting out the good stuff from the rest.

However, as Suarez points out, fewer and fewer universities are teaching courses in bibliography, book history or in critical bibliographic thinking skills.  As a result, fewer and fewer people are able to “read” the book as artifact and place it in the proper historical context, and by so doing, develop a keen understanding of the role of the physical book as both icon and totem.

As Suarez also points out, were it not for booksellers and collectors, few historians would be aware of the myriad formats in which Jefferson’s inaugural address appeared.  (Hint: ladies’ silk scarves, for one)

Sadly, as specialist booksellers who delight in researching and critically cataloguing rare books, pamphlets and manuscripts age out, die off and become fewer and fewer, there are, of course, fewer and fewer specialist catalogues being created with detailed, informative historical descriptions. 

Interestingly, most genealogists working today are not familiar with the detailed catalogues issued by Goodspeed’s in the early 20th century or by the earlier bibliographic work of Gilbert Cope.  In fact, the vast majority of today’s researchers would be mystified by a specialist bookseller’s use of cataloguing shorthand if an original edition pamphlet published, say, in 1853 were described as “Not in Purple and not in NUC”.  Or, if a piece of fascinating western Americana had the notation “Not in Howes or Streeter”.

Of course, for many folks, that’s no big deal.  There’s always Amazon and Barnes and Noble (with their “reader reviews”) and, increasingly, Google Books.  Who has room for real books anymore, anyway?  One book, one source, one digital image is as good as the next.  There’s not enough time to be critical, to evaluate, to actually research the source itself. 

This is, for many folks, the age of equality, in which all sources should be treated equally.

Besides, if it’s been digitized, who needs the actual book anymore anyway, right?  Some folks can’t imagine ever needing to look at the actual pages in the front and back of the volume that the folks who did the digitization didn’t bother with, right?  After all, if they were important, they would have digitized them, right?

After all, who’s to say that Gustave Anjou didn’t get it right, anyway? I’ve seen his books in libraries, so they must be right ..., right?

P.S. if you’re not familiar with Gustave Anjou, you’ll benefit greatly by reading this.   

And, by the way, his books are mighty handsome to look at, and a number are “gettable” through Google Books and Amazon.  They wouldn't lead you astray, right?

Books is books, right?


  1. Very interesting post, Mel. It reminds me of a talk you gave at MGC about bibliographies and I've loved them ever since!

  2. Thanks for (a.) reading the post and (b.) remembering the MGC talk. The great thing about bibliographies and specialist bookseller catalogues is that you'll always find yourself paging through them saying, "I didn't know that!" to yourself, over and over again.

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