Friday, September 25, 2009

"Books in Hard Times" Conference Recap

On Tuesday, I joined about 140 other biblio-people at the Grolier Club in New York City for a one day conference, "Books in Hard Times." I typed twelve pages of notes over the course of the day, most of which were intended for use in my formal report on the conference (which will appear elsewhere). I'll summarize them here now, though, and will link to the full report when it's available. The Grolier Club is also planning to publish proceedings of the conference, which I will certainly encourage all to read.

Grolier Club director Eric Holzenberg welcomed the group and offered some perspective on the "hard times" of today through the lens of the Grolier Club's own 125-year history. Robert H. Jackson delivered the keynote address, discussing the hard times faced by the book not only because of the economic turmoil but because of the rise of rival information technologies which promise to change the privileged status of print media. Today, he said, books face the "four horsemen of the print media apocalypse: computer, video, the internet, and the iPhone. History is changing books, and it’s something for us to worry about." Jackson urged special collections repositories to turn their focus to accessibility, saying "As special collections become more valuable, they need to be more accessible. As the materials become rarer, the audience must become less rarefied."

Jackson concluded his keynote address with a memorable and instructive line: "I have a hard time parting with books, and I suspect that our culture will have a hard time parting with the book as we know it. The book is a depository of time, good times and hard times, and time is the one thing that cannot be digitized."

Three panels followed Jackson: one of booksellers, one of librarians, and one of collectors. The booksellers (William Reese, Priscilla Juvelis, Tom Congalton) reported on the state of the trade: both Reese and Congalton said they have thus far seen not as much impact from the economic downtown as expected, while Juvelis said she's working "twice as hard to sell half as many books." All three admitted, however, that the impact on lower-tier rare and antiquarian / used booksellers has been much more significant, and negative. Reese noted that with mass-scale digitization projects, run-of-the-mill out-of-print books will become much more difficult to sell, while rarities will continue to command healthy prices.

All three of the booksellers expressed concern at the state of institutional acquisitions budgets, noting that a contraction in purchases by libraries will have a strongly negative impact. Reese also commented on the notion that small and medium-sized institutions and public libraries may lean toward "getting out of the rare book business," because their priorities may not include maintaining collections of rare and valuable books in perpetuity.

The question of a future market and younger collectors came up after the panel, and much attention was given to the idea that the internet can provide a key socialization space (Ian Kahn noted his use of Facebook, Twitter, a blog and other new media tools, and reported that many other booksellers and collectors are finding these outlets useful as well). Other suggestions for outreach included exhibits, public events, and book fairs.

LC's Mark Dimunation moderated the second panel, which featured Lilly Library Director Breon Mitchell, Cornell’s Katherine Reagan, and Nadina Gardner from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Mitchell and Reagan talked about the impact of the economic mess on their acquisition budgets and strategies; at the Lilly, Mitchell said, any new purchases will be made based on what "best fits, what's unlikely to come up again, and what's at the best price." Reagan added that special collections are likely to be the place where academic institutions differentiate themselves from each other, and urged cooperative, coordinated efforts among libraries to respond to the current technological and access changes.

Nadina Gardner expressed unease that preservation work may fall through the cracks in hard times, noting that preservation and access must go hand-in-hand. She mentioned some new NEH grant programs intended to promote both preservation and access, and applauded recent increases in NEH funding which allow for additional grants to be provided.

The final panel of the day included collectors Mark Samuels Lasner, David Alan Richards, and William Buice. Lasner summed up at the state of things in a single sentence (which drew a big laugh): "I have half the money, books cost twice as much, and there are four times as many of them on the market." He said that while he's still collecting, he has changed his tactics somewhat, beginning to buy items in slightly different areas than he might have before, and spending less per item. Materials with high exhibit potential or research value are key, he said. Lasner called on the dealers for a large-scale inventory sale, saying "There are books that simply cannot be sold at the prices being asked, not at this particular moment, and perhaps not for years. Why not lower the price?" Several dealers responded by saying that they don't really want to sell everything they've got, because they don't know at this point where the next batch of inventory is coming from.

Terry Belanger closed the day with a humorous recap of the meeting (tying each speaker and panel to the performance of the Dow during their talks). Terry called the meeting "the best one-day conference I've ever attended," a sentiment shared by me and probably many others in the hall.

It truly was a really spectacular day. It's not often that the top tier of American booksellers, librarians and collectors are all in the same room at the same time, and watching them all in action was truly a sight not to be missed. While the panelists tended to skew toward the elite end of the spectrum, it was very nice to add perspective from the floor during the discussion periods and in conversations during the breaks. Overall, I think the tone was one of cautious optimism: the book lives, even in hard times.