What Book Collecting Becomes
Polis Brantikos, executed January 14, 1913
By Bruce McKinney
Book collecting is not what it was. It has been a complex field broken down into sections subdivided into layers, the world of books divided into fiction and non-fiction, divided by era, subdivided into ever smaller parts; each the subject of some dealer's passion and a larger group of motivated collectors who bought and continue to buy from them, a system of professors, prophets and disciples. Dealers and collectors beyond memory organized themselves in this way. Auction houses traditionally provided a means of wholesale redistribution, the dealers welcomed, the collectors shunned.
Beginning in the 1960's collectors began to be a presence in the auction rooms. Dealers resisted, collectors insisted and over the next three decades collector presence became the norm rather than the exception at many auction venues. In the 1980's both Sotheby's and Christies shifted their emphasis to the collector now euphemistically known as the retail buyer and every other house in time followed.
With the coming of the net a third market emerged. To what dealers and auction houses offered now appeared copies of books posted by sellers of all type and motivation, each item individually described. This material that once filled tens of thousands of shelves and a million and more boxes, now became visible in single searches rather than simply in 10,000 book shops and garage sales. In posting to the net it became the descriptions of material that moved rather than the people to see them.
Increasing visibility changed everything. Relevance was redefined and continues to be redefined; the dealer's essential roles as teacher, leader and medicine man [I need some advice] diminished. Rarity and importance have, in many cases, been stood on their head by the flow of statistics and the material that listing by listing comprise them.
What was thought impossible is now probable, often easy, and the world of books forever changed by it: the information increasingly easy to manipulate, the searches increasingly global, the market that only a few years ago was a milky way of separate uncataloged inventories quickly becoming a single unified market. What was a series of muddy puddles is becoming an ocean of clear water.
For collectors this presents a dilemma: two distinct realities that co-exist and are difficult to separate. One is the traditional dealer lead, bibliography based collecting; the other self defined and originating in the concentric circles of relevance radiating from single searches on the web. Years ago the old reality co-opted the electronic world with listing sites that look and act precisely like bookstores; the tortoise shell imposed on the hare. Co-existing is another reality that mocks this traditional structure: the Google search. It sequences results by relevance. It's imperfect, very good and improving all the time. It permits anyone to search for anything of interest, be it a place, an idea, a name, an event, whatever. So a search for New Paltz pamphlets brings up a collection of more than 200 at the New Paltz Historical Society.
What Book Collecting Becomes
History is in the details.
For someone looking to identify, study and possibly collect such material here is your starting point. No one else in the world may do this but you can: ditto for every other idea large and small. The history of church architecture begins to come into view in just a few searches. So too does Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders and San Juan Hill. These days such searches often begin with personal connection such as letters mailed home from the front in World War One. Where was great grand Dad anyway and what about his story of meeting Grandma who was a nurse in Thierville-sur-Meuse? From such searches curiosity is peaked, researches begun and collections of mixed materials eventually built. Mixed? Books, manuscripts and letters, medals [Le Croix de Guerre], ephemera and maps: they all fit. It's hardly a book collection but books will find their place. Such endeavors may simply provide pleasure, some explain events, some build personal history and family heritage, others lead in the direction of more traditional collecting, to the accumulation of objects widely appreciated and valued. Whatever it leads to such efforts are continuously transformed and defined by the new way of seeing subjects and materials: through concentric circles of relevance that constantly evolve. Traditional collecting, the equivalent of pictures on a wall is now becoming the shark in constant motion.
Motivations for research and collecting have always been diverse but never before has the researcher/collector had complete control over the definition of the collecting field. Almost always in the past dealer knowledge and bibliographies defined the possible. Today the only limit to research and collecting is imagination.
Consider this example.
A set of the intake records for San Quentin Prison in Marin County, California, just across the bay from San Francisco. This is a set of sequentially numbered pages beginning with sheet 1 and continuing to 833 including details about each prisoner. These records, perhaps one of 2 to 4 sets, were prepared for law enforcement and possibly for San Quentin itself. They span the years 1909 into 1912, are mounted three to a page [11 x 14"], were originally bound into books but are now housed sheet by sheet in archival wraps and divided into four cases, each containing more than 100 leaves, mounted on two sides, printed, typed, many noted in hand and almost all with an "intake" photograph [2.75 x 3.25"]. The handwritten notes suggest these records remained within the prison or in the hands of enforcement well into the 1930s.
San Quentin was both a state prison and the local option for many of San Francisco's cases. It was, to quote Sergeant Joe Friday of Dragnet forty years later, "Full of people hard to understand." With this article is a database, created from these records, of all the men and women logged into San Quentin who passed through the San Francisco court system during this four year period. Intake photographs for each prisoner, apparently taken almost immediately after arrival, are affixed to each record. They are the blue links. Comparison of sentence with the appearance of the prisoner is telling.
What Book Collecting Becomes
San Francisco Boss, Inmate # 24911
For collectors such a database, potentially extended to include all 2,400 records encompassing convicted parties passing through all the California counties, may provide a unique way to approach the study and collection of history. The database provided is searchable for all categories by any terms of interest. Search a country or state to see where prisoners were born. Search Negro and separately Black to see persons described as such in the records. The term Negro was used for the first two years after which Black was employed. Search female to see women prisoners. Enter a profession such as baker, teamster or painter to see how many claimed the trade as their livelihood. Search by age and also search by crime. Of these 395, 19 were convicted of murder. How many were sentenced to death? Five. How many executed? As far as we can determine, of this group in this period: one.
The relationship between this item and the future of book collecting is somewhat difficult to explain but easy enough to see. These records are mixed media, photographs and the printed word, complexity and simplicity though it's unlikely any two people will see its potential the same way. To a researcher it may be in the possibility to compare sentences imposed and served then to today. To others it might, by comparing the yang of conviction to the ying of acquittal, cast light and possibly doubt on comparative fairness then and or now. Newspapers played a larger role then, their role in trials and convictions potentially altering outcomes. Certainly not every person convicted was guilty. Then as now, justice wasn't only blind, sometimes it was injustice. Newspaper archives, through the libraries, make it possible to revisit trials, social attitudes and the environments in which guilty verdicts were rendered. Certainly the social historian has a full plate in studying this material.
For individuals it may simply be the discovery of some forgotten or buried history. To a few it might be the scholarly study of simply one inmate: Abraham Ruef, no. 24911. He was the political boss of San Francisco at the time of the earthquake, was subsequently tried three times and convicted in 1910 of bribery. He entered prison on March 7, 1911, served 5 years of a 14 year sentence and died in the late 1930s impoverished. Two books have been written about him. Perhaps yours will be the third. If so, you are one of the new collectors, of information, if not necessarily the original materials.
Search San Quentin Prison Intake Records 1909-1912:
Note: after each search sequence reset the database to access all materials. For the entire database and for all search results the headers, if selected, will sequence the result using their field parameters.