The availability of many forms of collectible material causes some collectors to consider or reconsider if they are exclusively a book, map, manuscript, photography or ephemera collector. Most collectors will buy things from every category but probably continue to describe themselves as a collector of a particular form. They should reconsider. Here is my experience.
From an early age I was a book collector focusing on local books about Ulster County in New York. The number of potential items was graphically presented to me by a local historian who was also a book collector. Gesturing to his shelves in 1956 he pointed to a less than single shelf saying “these are the local collectible books I have found” and also offered that he was aware of other volumes he knew to exist but had not yet acquired. The total was about 45. How did he know about the unseen volumes? He pointed to his run of Sabin and mentioned Howe’s Usiana. A few months later, for my 11th birthday, I received through the mail in a padded box I kept for years, Wright Howes’ Usiana of ten thousand examples of printed Americana. In time that book would travel thousands of miles with me, early-on on my bike, later in my car when going to auctions, chasing leads, and visiting dealers in Boston, Albany and New York.
Howes was very useful and portable but Sabin’s the storied backbone for serious collectors of printed Americana. Forty-six years later in 2002 when I started the Americana Exchange online as a research site the full 29 volumes of Sabin'a Bibliotheca Americana were its original bedrock records, in fact two thirds of the original 151,000 records, we offered. In that era the collecting of printed material was still almost entirely the collecting of books.
Since 2002 the field has been at the center of a revolution.
If the internet was first a series of lists it is today both those lists and increasingly the complete contents of every item on those lists, many if not most with images. When all such material is within a single database a single search is efficient. When that database contains hundreds, even thousands of sources the efficiency is magnified hundreds of times over.
The transaction database on RBH now includes more than 8.7 million lots at auction that reflect the at-auction history of well over 99% of all collectible printed material, a significant number that provides statistical support for rarity and value but is itself a small number compared to the plethora of potentially related ephemera.
For more than twenty years I’ve been collecting the history of the mid-Hudson Valley of New York State and the changing nature of what I bought increasingly made it difficult to organize the collection as a book collection with benefits. For the past two years I have been trying to reimagine how such a collection might be divided and segmented and I think I’ve now found a workable solution.
If the original idea for a local collection, as suggested by Bill Heidgerd, was 24 to 30 inches of books on a single shelf, that collection now incorporates 8,000 to 10,000 items. Certainly all or almost all of the important books are present. As a fifth grader occupying several hours on a summer afternoon with a serious local historian in 1956 I came away understanding that collecting was the marriage of search and possession. Understanding was less certain, then explained as the “study of the facts by those knowledgeable enough to interpret the information,” an apparently very small group.
These days I’m focusing on understanding, trying to make thousands of items mesh, so to provide intense immediate clarity on the past. In other words, I’m trying to bring the past back into the current conversation. To get started I’ve reorganized my collection. Here is how I’m doing it.
I have chosen categories, in fact places to differentiate by printed place and/or referenced subject.
Here is the present list:
Albany [New York]
Lower Ulster and Newburgh
Poughkeepsie [and Dutchess County]
River Commerce [and its boats]
Disasters [Train collisions, ship wrecks, and fires]
Local Medals and Money
Related books are on the shelves, ephemera in boxes and maps in drawers. Objects that relate are sitting nearby. As well, some categories of material such as medals and ribbons are in separate boxes. This makes the collection understandable and accessible and provides logical destinations for new material, an important aspect of this approach as collecting continues for the collector until the money or time runs out.
Eight of the subjects will have a painting that reflects some aspect of its history. For New Paltz a depiction of the Burning of the Normal School at New Paltz in 1906 was completed in September 2018. A painting of the waterfront at Rondout, circa 1880, is expected to be completed in spring 2019.
The goal will be to digitize all material and make every aspect of each item searchable.
The database is envisioned as a living entity and therefore one to which new material can be added regularly. Given that ephemera is thought to outnumber books by at least 1,000 to 1 this suggests that the collection, just for Ulster County, could approach 100,000 items.
As to what we might find, it’s already apparent that the people of Ulster County have lived and relived the many events of human existence, seen their prospects rise, fall and rise again.
As to what this database can most provide, it’s perspective. These days we are living in the moment. Ulster County history will remind us we have all been here before. Perhaps, with detailed access to the past, we can regain a current perspective. We make better decisions when we take the time to think.
In time I believe the database will be more valuable than the collection as most research is done online without direct reference to underling copies.