There are days when I gasp in admiration at the sagacity, sophistication and sheer scholarship of some of my colleagues in the rare book trade. A perfectly catalogued book is a beautiful thing. There are other days (I am afraid rather more of them) when I weep in despair at the utter ineptitude of so-called booksellers who fail so dismally at this basic task of our trade.
I mean the typical sort of booksellers you find listing their wares on ABE, or the Amateur Bookselling Experience as we have come to think of it. One of the things I found myself wholly unable to explain over the summer to my delightful intern was why otherwise reputable booksellers continue to list their books there and in so doing lend credibility to a website which should long ago have sunk beneath the weight of the amateurs, charlatans and algorithm-chasers who infest it. It’s owned by the ‘tax-efficient’ and grasping Amazon, the creation of Jeff Bezos – a man who is alleged once to have instructed one of his minions “to proceed as if your goal is to put everyone selling physical books out of a job” (see Brad Stone’s “The Everything Store”, 2013, p.234). The minions have been making a fine fist of doing that of course. Where that leaves people who list or buy on Amazon or ABE is for them to decide. As someone else in the book says, “You don’t work with Amazon, you work for them”.
A side-effect of all this is that standards of cataloguing in the book trade are in a spiral of decline. I suppose we all make a start by imitating the examples before us, and as newcomers copy all the sloppy habits of the bulk of the denizens of ABE – of course there are exceptions, but bad money always drives out good, as we all know – there is only one way this can go. I became involved in what might be called remedial work for the ABA some years ago and that time went back to the basics of bibliography and the various sets of rules drawn up by the great libraries of the world, to try to determine an outline guide to best practice. After a long gestation, this is now about to be published (sixty-four pages of it, with illustrations) – it’s currently at proof stage and out with my friends and colleagues Simon Beattie, Pinda Bryars (Bryars & Bryars), Justin Croft, Roger Gaskell, Angus O’Neill (Omega Bookshop) and of course Pauline Schol (with whom I have been discussing cataloguing all summer), for final checking before it goes to the printers. My deepest thanks are due to them all, but especially to Roger Gaskell, who has manfully been trying to keep me on the bibliographical straight-and-narrow over many years now.
The first batch of copies will be handed out next month to all the students at this year’s York Antiquarian Book Seminar (YABS), where Simon and Justin will once again be teaching. After that it will go on general sale – £10 a copy, plus £1.50 postage in the UK (if you don’t mind it coming in a plain manila envelope rather than full packaging) – part of the proceeds to go to the ABA Benevolent Fund. Let me know if you would like one.
*** The booklet is now on sale on this link: http://www.ashrare.com/cataloguing.html.