Wednesday, August 29, 2018

370. An Early Computer-Based Antiquarian List, May 1985

From the hundreds of antiquarian catalogues that I recently handled - in an attempt to save space - I found one published by Blackwell's Rare Books in 1985. It has a surprising introduction. I remember seeing catalogues that contain a short preamble on the history of the firm, or an account written by a collector on the eve of the sale of his life's work, or an obituary of one of the owners of the firm, but the 1985 Blackwell catalogue has a rather technical foreword.

It is about the introduction of computer software to improve the firm's sales methods.

Blackwell's Rare Books (May 1985)

The computer-printed introduction is signed in pencil by the firm's dealer, Philip Brown:

You are probably aware that we have been considering for some time the use of computers to assist us with catalogue production, selective mailing to interested customers, and for support in many other vital tasks of our antiquarian bookselling, while retaining total flexibility with the personal touches which are so important. We have selected a range of micro-computers with unique software, which will (we believe) achieve the initial objectives we have set, and the first three of these systems are just coming into use.

Blackwell's Rare Books (May 1985)
Blackwell's modernisation made it possible to send specialised lists to customers such as my friend Ton Leenhouts who received this first list in May 1985. The list could be more topical, and didn't have to be expensively printed, as the introduction explained:

An important facility given to us now is that of producing frequent "proof lists". Each list will be subject-classified, and will comprise a selection of descriptions of recent purchases as they come into stock. They will be produced in-house, and will contain bibliographical information to our usual standards. Overseas copies will be despatched by air-mail, and all proof lists will have a very limited circulation. After a brief period, any unsold items will be forwarded to our more widely distributed catalogues.

And so, a new era began. The descriptions, and the books on offer didn't change, and contemporary collecting fashions were not discontinued. For that to happen, the internet had to be invented first.

Inside, we see the traditional division of modern books into two sections: 'Private Press Books', and 'Modern First and Limited Editions'.

In the first section we find a heading for Ricketts's Vale Press.

Blackwell's Rare Books (May 1985)
Comparing prices, we may perhaps deduct that the more desirable presses were Ashendene Press, Officina Bodoni, and Shakespeare Head Press, while other presses were relatively more affordable, such as Golden Cockerell Press, Nonesuch Press, and, indeed, Vale Press.

Blackwell's Rare Books (May 1985)
The descriptions offer other clues for collecting fashions. Entry No 40, for example, contains a description of the Vale Press edition of William Meinhold's Mary Schweidler, the Amber Witch (1903). The notice very carefully describes every imaginable wear and tear, but also points out that the book has never been used for reading:

very slight rubbing to the corners, endpapers lightly browned, untrimmed and almost entirely unopened[.]

The folded quires that formed the book had not been cut open by previous owners, and there must have been a few in the years between 1902 and 1985. As times goes by, such unopened copies get scarcer, while collecting fashions change. The unread book, the unopened book is not as desirable as it used to be. Is the private press book still some sort of trophy? Other features seem to overshadow that particular one: prices are now dictated by condition, the author's fame, and provenance. Nowadays, an 'ideal copy' is a famous book written by a famous writer and owned by a famous collector, while both collector and author have left their emotional traces - words, drawings, tears - between the pages. On the other hand, prices create fashions as well: the most expensive book must be desirable.