The most difficult problems to solve are those with many variables—inevitably those with more variables are more difficult to solve.
Book collecting has been both the victim and beneficiary of changes wrought by the internet. Larger databases provide data on available examples and comparable and related items. Thirty years ago rarity was a word applied by an expert. Today it is determined by statistics, and anyone with curiosity and a few bucks can know what an item is worth.
Scale of availability is a blunt instrument that molds the traditional structures and forms of collecting into new, more personal possibilities. For years beyond memory, books were collected as a category because that is how they were understood. The internet now allows for categories to be interleaved, so machinery, furniture, paintings, objects of all descriptions as well as the four categories in collectible paper, all fit into possibilities in a single search that only now, for the first time, heave into view. Thus it is safe to say we are at the dawn of a new, more focused, collecting and I believe the outcomes will be spectacular because the possibilities have never been better.
It’s understandable that the collectible paper field has, for want of imagination and a sense of the evolving future, tried to maintain the weakening distinctions between these categories. It’s not possible, however, because categorical distinctions were created by sellers to define and explain their inventory, whereas today, auction services, because searches reorder reality to each person’s taste, sweep up related material when the search terms are well thought out. Buyers inevitably will prefer to collect in a personal cross-category way, focusing on their personal preferences. Books may be a part of it, but they will rarely be all that a collector imagines.
The internet now encourages one’s imagination to define the scale and scope of a collection because many of the boundaries that separated fields are breached with keyword searches that simply look for references in as many retail listings and auction lots posted that contain them. Books, manuscripts, maps and ephemera now loosely fit into a single category. Paintings are important, as are other art forms such as watercolors and prints. Genealogical research now often plays a part. There are so many ways to collect that the limits of searches are now being reimagined.
This is the true effect of the increasingly large databases that bit by bit pull together all data today while also mining past records to build a seamless account from earliest days to yesterday.
So, whether you are a collector or the representative of a collecting institution, your challenge is the same; to see your collecting focus as ever-changing, and an ever better opportunity, for it’s increasingly possible to find the perfect and the impossible, and sometimes, on the same day.