Magazine article American Libraries

Are Bibliophiles Endangering Rare Books?

Magazine article American Libraries

Are Bibliophiles Endangering Rare Books?

Article excerpt


You'd think that the safest place for a rare first edition would be in the custody of an avid book lover -- such as the library professionals who've made it their business to manage collections, or for that matter the private collectors who crave valuable volumes for their intrinsic uniqueness.

But academic librarians Lisa A. Beinhoff and Steven Cox contend that such bibliotreasures don't necessarily fare well in either venue. Their cautionary tales reveal how shortsighted even the most noble intentions and personal passions can be.

How Online Auctions Threaten Library Collections

While reviewing my library's annual statistics about a year ago, I noticed that our clientele seemed to be losing our rarer signed and older first editions at a faster rate than circulation was increasing. When I looked into the matter, I found out that we charge patrons who lose books the replacement cost plus $24 in overdue, processing, and mailing fees. If the title isn't in the current edition of Books in Print, we automatically assess a flat $25 fee. In addition, we don't charge extra if the book is a first edition or signed by the author, since the paraprofessionals who calculate replacement costs don't know how to estimate the value of a rare book.

Based on this simple equation, a patron who lost our copy of the 1957 first edition of Jack Kerouac's masterpiece On the Road would have to pay $49. Though the fine seems unrealistically low, the condition of the copy on our shelves was extremely poor. The book's dust jacket was missing, its binding was broken, its boards were soiled and foxed, and parts of the text had been highlighted. And, of course, the book bore all the marks and stamps usually found in a library edition. At best, this was a "reading copy" and would probably be of little interest to the serious book collector.

On the surface this appears to be a reasonable policy for a public educational institution, and not an altogether uncommon library practice. What it doesn't take into account, though, is the fact that the trade in books--in particular, rare and used books--has become increasingly popular on the Internet, largely because they can be easily and cheaply shipped. Also only a click away is an estimate of the book's fair-market value.

Sale of the 21st century

Until recently, only the most tenacious bibliophiles would spend the time and money contacting used-book stores across the country in search of works they craved; now anyone can easily find a copy of a favorite childhood book or an uncommon edition of a popular work of fiction. Unsurprisingly, this 24-hour garage sale has spawned literally thousands of Ebay-based businesses across the country that offer rare books at particularly high prices, because that is what the market will bear.

At first glance, this new Internet-based commerce seems of no particular concern to the average librarian. But take heed: Because the Internet is also a bastion of misinformation, inflated online estimates are convincing many people that the market value of used books is greater than it actually is--even as demand grows for the tomes that live on library shelves, among other places.

For instance, I had a good laugh when I surfed the Internet to determine what a first edition, such as ours, of On the Road would bring. …

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