Ready or Not?
Rare books don’t rule the world. They are part of the world and while intellectual, primarily appeal to the emotions. They are baubles whose appeal for some is magic, for others unimportant. They are, in the complex online world, now the makings of jigsaw puzzles conceived by individuals, and executed over varying time and with changing focus. They are the polar opposite of stamp collecting for there are few specifics and many variables and the success of a collection is often not known until long after the last book, manuscript or object has long gathered dust.
Traditional collecting continues and dealers and auction houses primarily make a market for they who pursue the significant, famous and infamous. The letters of Washington mostly pass through adept houses and well placed dealers. The mundane but more relevant history of Washington, be it a town or county in New York, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Oregon or any of the ten or so other Washingtons in the 50 US states not so much but millions of people nevertheless live in or near a Washington and have, if not feel, connections to their local history, be it the events that took place or the authors who lived there. So while the occasional spectacular Washington letter makes the front pages of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal interesting if not so expensive local history in all its many forms bubbles up in all the logical places: from garage sales and eBay through to auctions large and small, listing sites and dealers. Such material exists in a frenzied and overwhelmingly under-defined world of possibilities more than facts. The pursuit of this type of history, whether it be about a place, a period, an individual or group, a movement or an idea or anything else the mind can conceive is increasingly easy for those with an interest and the knack. The net has made it possible to collect efficiently and uniquely. It is also unfamiliar.
Until a decade or so ago printed material was categorized and subjects organized in ways that helped dealers, institutions and collectors understand the scale of possibility. Occasionally these bibliographies were updated thus confirming the known world and creating interest in discoveries that further increased collecting possibilities. Such discoveries, invariably uncommon, subtly confirmed the completeness of such collecting guidebooks. Of necessity, such efforts focused on where the interest was. Few people were collecting Washington County, Oregon so there was much less effort in documenting the scope and scale of its collectible materials. The same has been true of virtually every other place named Washington. The occasional bibliography was helpful but their existence often rare, and if they have existed at all, most are probably today out-of-date.
Ready or Not?
Enter the Internet and the ability to run searches on Google and other sites to create a personally interesting focus. Perhaps the county focus is too or unnecessarily large. Perhaps a single family in a single place is more appropriate. Here is an example: Hasbrouck Ulster History. Hasbrouck is a family name, Ulster a county and the orientation of the search history. The result, on Google, is a timeline in graph form that shows both the breadth and depth of related results for this family in this place. The timeline is the compilation of many sources, in effect a history with bibliographical overtones. As all references are linked, the timeline becomes the constant connecting a cobweb of related materials. If a family was important between 1850 and 1900 the volume of Google’s references will invariably reflect this. In this way so many subjects, too small and too specific for bibliographic attention become, via the framing of an internet query, bibliographies on the fly.
For the book business this is a stunning development because, while it makes it possible for new collectors to find subjects of personal relevance, it also reduces interest in what have been the primary collecting focuses. For dealers who stock material by traditional subject the field may grow but interest in these general subjects decline.
The Google search is a single example of the ability to organize subjects around personally appealing perspectives. Free searches of the AE databases accomplish the same outcome and confine the results to material relevant to collectors and collections.
We live in a world of intellectual possibilities that few could have surmised twenty years ago. Such changes both confuse and transform. The pursuit of collectible material employing the traditional approaches seems to now be in parabolic descent. We are living in a unique moment, unknown, even unimagined to generations of collectors who have collected in traditional ways for the past three hundred years. We are also now living in the genesis of the new collecting. The possibilities have never been better but the process is so new and still evolving that fertile opportunities today go wanting because so few understand what the process offers. The pursuit of highly specific personally defined collecting is, as traditional collecting declines, beginning its parabolic ascent though barely making a ripple yet. In the future it will become a tidal wave. Who knew?