Your blogger has always preferred the written word to the spoken one: as the Latins used to say, verba volant, scripta manent. I was never tempted to make videos or podcasts for The Fate of Books, and even if I wanted to produce them, they probably wouldn’t be very good. I’m not that talented at multimedia. Several people have told me I’m good at writing, though. And what better way there is to celebrate books and the written word than to write about them.
Nonetheless, I also enjoy talking about books. Last autumn, fellow blogger Jerry Morris from the Florida Bibliophile Society (FBS) invited me to talk about books as a guest speaker at their society meeting, which was scheduled for March 20, 2022. Most of their speakers are local (especially before Covid, when the meetings would be held in person), but the pandemic has brought about the shift to Zoom and with it, exotic guests like myself. The FBS leadership told me I was welcome to speak about anything, as long as it had to do with books and book collecting in Slovenia.
My lecture ended up consisting of three parts. The first one was a brief outline of the history of Slovenian language and literature – a soporific topic, but I tried to make it less so by focusing on the funny and quirky episodes of our story. In the second part, I then talked about what it’s like to collect books in a small place like Slovenia, and how I think it compares to the experience of an American collector.
In the third part, I discussed Slovene American publishing, focusing on some items from my own collection. Not only is this a topic I felt American listeners would be interested in, it’s also very close to the subject matter of my blog. Fewer and fewer descendants of Slovenian immigrants to the USA still speak the language, which means that interest in Slovenian books is declining as well. Once nobody in the neighborhood can read a certain book anymore and no second hand store is interested in taking it, it’s not hard to guess the most likely fate of that book. So, as I told my listeners last month – if anyone across the pond encounters a pile of old Slovenian books and doesn’t know what to do with them, you’re more than welcome to contact me.
The recording of the lecture has now been made available online here. Check it out yourself for a rare opportunity to see how your blogger looks and sounds like. And thanks again to the FBS team for inviting me over!
Update: I learned recently that Jerry Morris, who had invited me to hold the lecture and who chaired the actual Zoom session, passed away on April 3 – two weeks after I spoke at the FBS meeting and just one day after I brought out the above post. Jerry was not only a passionate collector, he was also the most prolific blogger I knew in this niche area of ours, havingfoundedandrun7 differentbook-collectingblogs over the course of more than a decade. His in-depth descriptions, adorned with numerous photos, of the gems of his collection easily put my own hastily written blog posts to shame.
When I discussed the topic of my lecture with Jerry in advance, I raised doubts whether an American audience would care much about the minutiae of Slovenian collecting. He replied that I shouldn’t fret about it: book collecting was an international language. From now on, whenever someone asks me about the usefulness of collecting foreign-language books, or operating a blog in English, I will happily retort with Jerry’s phrase.
I considered writing an obituary, but I felt it would be presumptuous to write about someone I had only met online on a few occasions, and about whom I honestly didn’t know that much. Instead, I can direct my readers to the obituary posted at Fine Books & Collections, one of the world’s largest news sites about rare books and book collecting.
Update #2:The new issue of the FBS newsletter has just come out. Inside is another obituary of Jerry Morris, as well as a detailed, illustrated summary of my lecture. Thanks to Gary Simons, who took the time to convert my 45-minute rambling into a highly readable article!
One day in the late 1980s, Miran Ivan Knez and Edo Torkar happened to arrive at the same time to one of the waste paper dumps in Ljubljana. Knez was already famous back then as the founder of Bukvarna, the “book asylum” for rescuing discarded books; Torkar was just starting out as a second-hand bookseller. That day, they had the same objective – rescuing a large shipment of old books which had just arrived to the dump. However, their approach was slightly different.
Knez first went up to the workers and began to lambast them for helping destroy the nation’s cultural heritage. Books are our greatest treasure – if we stop reading, we’ll stop being – worthy sentiments, which Knez could weave into arbitrarily long impromptu speeches. Meanwhile, Torkar slid up and down the courtyard, sifted through the piles of paper, and quietly filled up the trunk of his car. By the time the trunk was full, Knez was still at the other side of the courtyard, hectoring anyone who wasn’t able to run away quickly enough. The next time a large amount of books arrived at the dump, only Torkar received a tip-off.
Already as a kid, Torkar knew that he wanted to be his own boss one day and run a business. Nowadays, schools will go out of their way to instill an entrepreneurial spirit in their pupils, but back in the fifties this was a very obscure career choice, about as popular and encouraged as becoming a rabbi or a sexologist. Instead, Torkar graduated from metallurgical school, worked for some time as a sailor, wrote a few books of short stories, occasionally smuggled coffee across the border, and finally started making inroads into the world of business when the flea market in Ljubljana opened in the 1980s. For a time, he was supposedly the most popular seller of books there, thanks to his jovial personality and his crazy prices. After a few years of flea marketeering, he decided to go a level up and opened his own brick-and-mortar bookstore. He hasn’t left the business since then.
Nowadays, Torkar is technically retired, but he still spends most of the time at his second-hand store, the “Bukvarna Radovljica” in northwestern Slovenia. This is the home planet, from which he makes attempts to colonize the rest of the Gorenjska region. A store of his in Kranj recently went out of business, whereas another one in Jesenice is still holding out. Even if that one ultimately fails, though, his central location is more than enviable. The store’s name could easily also be “Antikvariat Linhart,” since it’s located inside the birth house of the eponymous author of the first Slovenian play. Three rooms are filled with books, plus a bookshelf-lined former corridor which feels like a time capsule from Linhart’s day. It isn’t all cold stone and 18th century, though – sitting on a chair close to the entrance, I was repeatedly assaulted by the most cuddle-loving cat I’ve ever met.
There are plenty of antiquarian booksellers in this country, and with a few exceptions they all have cute stores. The real reason why Torkar is getting his own post is that unlike most book dealers, he isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty – in a good way. While most dealers are used to having books brought to them at the store, Torkar spent most of his career prowling around dumps and paper mills, trash collections and the occasional dumpster, rescuing and reselling many tons of books. He’s also a fellow blogger, and when I read a short post of his about his book-rescuing days, I figured my blog’s readership would be interested in what he has to say.
Torkar is quite frank that unlike yours truly, his approach to rescuing books is pragmatic. He always took what he could resell for a decent profit, and left behind the rest. He doesn’t really identify as a bibliophile or a collector; when people talk about books too much, it gets on his nerves. At the same time, he was often able to get inside dumps and paper mills that were barred to other, sneakier and shiftier booksellers. He says it was probably his naïve attitude which helped him gain the workers’ confidence. He wasn’t trying to rip anyone off or break the law; he was just looking for nice books.
When you spent over twenty years dumpster diving for waste paper, what are the most amazing finds that you can boast of? The first thing that came to Torkar’s mind was the archive of the Hygiene Foundation (Higienski zavod), a pre-war Ljubljana-based institution which did surveys of the Slovenian countryside. Inside were over a thousand original photographs of rural houses; many of these homes didn’t survive WWII, and of course very few of them still stand today. A dozen of these photos would have overjoyed any local-history collector, yet Torkar found himself with enough of the snapshots to open another store. Fortunately, the collection was bought en bloc by the Ethnography department at Ljubljana’s Faculty of Arts, a happy end to this particular dumpster story.
Another time, Torkar fished out a large pile of archives of National Liberation Councils (Narodnoosvobodilni odbori), local administrative bodies from the early post-war era, from the Slovenian littoral region. He offered the collection to a few institutions, but there wasn’t much interest, so he started selling them off piecemeal. It turned out there was a lot of interest for that: lots of people were curious about what their families and fellow villagers did during the transition from Nazism to socialism. Suddenly, Torkar got a call from the local archive in the Slovenian littoral. They were willing to have the documents back – for free. When Torkar objected to this very generous proposal, they threatened a lawsuit. He still didn’t budge, though, so they started haggling. In the end, the archives managed to return to the institution whose subsidiary had sent them to the paper mill.
What happened when Torkar was on holiday, or busy at the store? Did he have any helpers in the dumpster diving business? Sort of, but not really. A few of the workers from the dump would try bringing him books, but they didn’t know what was valuable and what wasn’t, so they were usually disappointed at the payment they received. In Ljubljana, you can often see Roma picking through piles of bulky waste, but apparently they don’t show up in the Gorenjska region that often. Torkar still has an old lady from town who does rounds on her bike, inspects waste paper containers and brings him two or three books at a time. The books are rarely worth much, but he buys them nonetheless, because she seems like she needs the money and because he doesn’t want to chase her away.
Torkar jokes that the above lady is the only person from whom he still buys small amounts of books. Like all dumpster divers (yours truly included), he’s a bit spoiled when it comes to spending money on things. Nowadays, he gets most of his books in bulk purchases from estates and libraries, where the price he pays per book is generally very small. It’s telling that when I mentioned some of my own amazing dumpster finds and bargain purchases, he merely nodded, unimpressed; however, when I mentioned an occasion when an online seller demanded 200 euros for a booklet worth perhaps 20, Torkar almost jumped off his chair.
If you want to sell him a dozen books, though, he is always willing to exchange them for store credit. He showed me the only book which has been sitting in the store from the very beginning: a large address-book, filled with names, dates and sums. You can acquire 30 euros of store credit and spend it ten years from now, if you want to. If Torkar started buying books for cash again, however, he says he’d probably have a line of people stretching from the door to the edge of town.
There weren’t many dumpster divers in the Gorenjska region, apparently, but Torkar still got to know a few from Ljubljana. One of them once arrived with an eye-popping pile of papers: official mail sent out by Gorenjski odred, a WWII resistance unit operating in NW Slovenia. Slovenian resistance was extremely well organized: they had their own clandestine hospitals, schools, printing presses, radio stations, and a mail delivery system, all while the country was occupied by the Germans and Italians. Mail was delivered via couriers, usually young boys who were a popular hunting target for Nazis and their local collaborators. Nonetheless, this particular heap of papers made it through and Torkar offered them to various museums and archives. There was some interest, but mostly they wanted the archive for free or for a very modest sum. In the end, Torkar managed to find a serious buyer: the enfant terrible of Slovenian collecting, politician, provocator, gun nut and self-declared aristocrat, Zmago Jelinčič.
One of Jelinčič’s many weird contradictions is that he is a far-right politician who has occasionally threatened to shoot immigrants, yet he also praises the wartime communist resistance and despises their collaborationist opponents. I asked Torkar whether bookbuyers’ tastes have changed during his career. Now that the generation which fought WWII is almost gone, and it has been 30 years since the losers gained the right to voice their side of the story, is the demand for WWII-themed books declining? Surprisingly, Torkar’s answer is “no.” For better or worse, grandchildren are often just as interested in the war as the old belligerents themselves. At the same time, there is never a shortage of doofuses who cart off rarities directly to the dump. Torkar says he vividly remembers the time a guy brought a knee-high pile of wartime collaborationist material as waste paper – rare magazines such as Slovensko domobranstvo which rarely last more than a day in any bookstore before being grabbed up by collectors. I couldn’t help salivating a bit.
It can be hard for a collector to understand how clueless some people can be about old books. “Do you really find that many banknotes inside?” a worker at the paper dump asked Torkar one day. “Huh?” … It turned out the poor man couldn’t understand why anyone would possibly be interested in these books, so he figured Torkar’s real objective must be the euros, francs and dollars that people accidentally leave inside. On one occasion, the worker’s naïve wisdom turned out to be correct, though. Torkar found a large sum of money in German marks, a currency which was already defunct then but which can even now be exchanged for euros at major banks in Germany. He made a trip to Munich and came back with over 1000 euros, a sum for which he would otherwise have needed to sell quite a few books.
Even people who should know better sometimes send valuable books to the paper mill. Publishers, for example. In the Slovenian online bookselling world, where I regularly snoop around for antiquarian books, a few authors consistently sell like hotcakes. At the top of the list are JRR Tolkien, JK Rowling, Enid Blyton and Douglas Adams, all in Slovenian translation, of course. Well, Torkar once managed to arrive at the paper mill just as a consignment of Adams’ books was being unloaded, straight from the warehouse. If the publisher was unable to sell these books, what kind of books were they capable of selling then, for Christ’s sake? Torkar also found lots of other titles over the years that had come straight from the printing press to the paper mill. One of the occasions, when he came across a shipment of poems by Seamus Heaney, was mentioned on his blog – one small source for a history of book destruction in Slovenia…
Has the number of books that land in dumpsters changed in any way during the last few decades? Torkar thinks it has decreased somewhat, thanks to the shops run by local trash collecting companies. In his own Radovljica, the workers at the trash sorting facility supposedly stop anyone who arrives with trash to dispose of, and ask the visitors whether they have anything which might still be usable, such as books. The material then goes to the next-door shop, usually called komunalna trgovina, where it is sold for a modest price. In theory, the Center ponovne uporabe store in Ljubljana has the same system, and I have my doubts about how well it works, but I will agree that some books are spared this way.
I was looking forward to taking a few pictures of Torkar’s awesome trash finds, but he says he has already sold them all. He put his dumpster diving career on hold almost ten years ago, and he has barely acquired any books from the trash since then. He says he doesn’t really need to – he has first dibs on material brought to many of the abovementioned trash companies’ shops, as well as on donated material that is passed over by the regional libraries. On top of that, he is a household name in the region, so of course people offer him entire libraries all the time. Add to this a full warehouse and his advancing years, and it’s hard to begrudge him for not picking through the trash anymore. When he wrote about dumpster diving on his blog, though, he said he hoped his writing would inspire someone else to take up the mantle after his departure. There is profit, as well as a warm fuzzy feeling inside, to be made in diving for books. Let’s hope his words didn’t fall on deaf ears.
At the end of the day, Edo Torkar is first of all a pragmatist. He mentioned how some time ago, a lady stopped at his store and offered him a trunkload of old books. Torkar went out to inspect the books and recognized them at once, since he was the one who had thrown them into the dumpster… Of course, I can’t endorse him here, but I can’t really judge him either. The episode just goes to show that we need more non-profits (such as Bukvarna Ciproš) whose mission is to preserve old volumes and pass them on, regardless of their market value. Second-hand booksellers are great, but you can only expect so much from them. To paraphrase Adam Smith, it is not from the benevolence of the dumpster diver, or the bookseller, or the auctioneer that we expect our book collection, but from their regard to their own interest.
Do I recommend visiting Bukvarna Radovljica? Well, not only does it have a great location and atmosphere, is it probably also the largest for-profit second-hand bookstore in the country. Most of the stock is listed online, so you needn’t come in person if you don’t have time. If you do visit, however, you can also rummage through the discounted books, which aren’t listed online, and if you buy several items, Torkar will probably give you an additional discount. He also claims to have the largest selection of English paperbacks in Slovenia, most of them going for 3 euros apiece. Radovljica might be a small town in the countryside, but it’s also located right next to the undisputed capital of Slovenian tourism, Bled. If you’re planning to visit Lake Bled, and if you enjoy snooping around for books, this is the place to stop at.
 In most cases, a “bukvarna” is a non-profit institution whose main objective is to preserve books; however, the term can also refer to an ordinary, for-profit second-hand bookstore, which would more commonly be called “antikvariat.” There is still a difference in prestige between both terms: an “antikvariat” will usually be pickier about the kinds of books it offers.
I originally wrote this post for a book review contest that was hosted by the blog Astral Codex Ten earlier this year. There were over 100 entries, out of which mine made it among the 17 finalists. The winners were determined by a combination of the host blogger’s score and public voting – a huge thanks to everyone who voted! Unfortunately, I didn’t make it into the top three, but even without that, the review generated a lot of publicity – almost 200 comments, plus more than 50 comments on Hacker News, plus several mentions on other notable blogs and websites.
Readers seemed to agree that mine was among the most controversial reviews. Not only did I make it clear that I support Baker’s arguments – major research libraries should preserve old books and newspapers in the original paper form – but I also shared his indignation at irreplacable 19th century volumes being shredded and replaced with semi-legible microfilm versions. Unfortunately, several librarians seemed to think that by attacking malpractice in specific institutions, I was denigrating the profession as a whole.
As I repost the review here at The Fate of Books for librarian and non-librarian readers alike, I’d like to stress that I do not see the mass discarding and destruction of historical material as an inseparable part of being a librarian. I wouldn’t be so keen on writing about recklessness and ignorance if I couldn’t also point out examples of librarians excelling at their job – acquiring new historical material for their collections, carefully preserving what they already have, and perhaps most importantly, making sure that discards and unwanted acquisitions are donated to the public (or sold) rather than destroyed. Librarians and collectors are natural allies – only when they join forces can written heritage truly be safeguarded for future generations.
If you enter a major research library in the US today and request to see a century-old issue of a major American newspaper, such as Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, or major-but-defunct newspapers such as the New York “World,” odds are that you will be directed to a computer or a microfilm reader. There, you’ll get to see black-and-white images of the desired issue, with individual numbers of the newspaper often missing and much of the text, let alone pictures, barely decipherable.
The libraries in question mostly once had bound issues of these newspapers, but between the 1950s and the 1990s, one after another, they ditched the originals in favor of expensive microfilmed copies of inferior quality. They continued doing this even while the originals became perilously rare; the newspapers themselves were mostly trashed, or occasionally sold to dealers who cut them up and dispersed them. As a consequence, many of these publications are now rarer than the Gutenberg Bible, and some 19th and 20th century newspapers have ceased to exist in a physical copy anywhere in the world.
When Double Fold by Nicholson Baker came out in 2001, it was described as The Jungle of the American library system. After 20 years, the book remains universally known, sometimes admired but often despised, among librarians. The reason for their belligerence is that Baker publicly revealed a decades-long policy of destruction of primary materials from the 19th and 20th centuries, based on a pseudoscientific notion that books on wood-pulp paper are quickly turning to dust, coupled with a misguided futuristic desire to do away with outdated paper-based media. As a consequence, perfectly well preserved books with centuries of life still ahead of them were hastily replaced with an inferior medium which has, at the moment that I am writing this review, already mostly gone the way of the dodo. Despite its notoriety among librarians, however, Double Fold is little-known among the general public, even compared to Baker’s other non-fiction and his novels.
This is a shame, since the mass destruction of books and newspapers by libraries in the post-war era deserves to be better known as one of the most egregious failures of High Modernism, comparable with the wackiest plans of Le Corbusier. The story combines an excessive reliance on simplistic mathematical models, wilful ignorance to the desires of actual library-users and scholars, embracement of miniaturization and modernization as terminal values, and an almost complete disregard of 19th century books as historical artefacts. Unlike industrial farms, which can be broken up, and Brasília-style skyscrapers, which can be torn down and replaced with something else, the losses caused by the mass deaccessioning of books and newspapers from libraries were often irreplaceable.
As part of the uproar that followed the book’s publication, the Association of Research Libraries published an online anti-Baker FAQ, and in 2002, the book “Vandals in the Stacks?” by Richard J. Cox came out, presenting an attempted refutation of Baker’s theses. I have read both of these and discuss Cox’s arguments later on, but I must admit in advance that I was mostly convinced by Baker’s argumentation much more than by that of his opponents. Nonetheless, it is uncommon to have a polemical book receive a book-length response, and anyone interested in Baker’s thesis is advised to check out Cox as well.
The story of Double Fold might be said to begin in the 1930s with the advent of microfilming. The idea of photographing documents to make them more portable had been around at least since the 1870s, but it took 60 more years until microfilm technology was sufficiently advanced to become attractive for libraries. The basic idea was simple: you took pictures of every page of a book, put them together into a roll of film stored in a small box, and when someone wanted to “read” the book, they put the film into a large TV-like device that magnified the image onto a screen, with a pair of buttons that you could use to navigate left and right.
Baker claims that microfilm got a big boost during WWII, when it was often used by spies to hide documents, and by the US government back home to disseminate military information. This allure continued during the Cold War years, and it helped that many of the librarians keenest on microfilm were ex-military men who wanted to apply what they had learned in the Army to their civilian jobs. Microfilms were small and felt modern, but unfortunately, many of the advantages they presented to the military were not exactly advantages for libraries as well. Baker quotes Vernon D. Tate, an Army microfilm specialist who went to become chief librarian at MIT:
Books may not be blown to bits or easily consumed by fire; microfilms if capture is inevitable can be rapidly and completely consumed, and as easily replaced through the making of prints from master negatives.
Apart from being flammable, microfilms also had several more commonly encountered disadvantages. Baker describes reading them as a “brain-poaching, gorge-lifting trial,” especially when the images had a poor resolution.
You feel as if you’re mowing an endless monochromatic lawn, sliding the film gate this way and that, fiddling with the image rotation dial and the twitchily restive motor switch. If you have a date and a page number, you look that one citation up and leave; you’re rarely tempted to spend several hours in the daily contextual marsh. ‘Certainly the patron’s desire to browse through back issues of newspapers is almost completely gone – people rarely browse through microfilm’: so wrote E. E. Duncan in Microform Review in 1973.
Not all libraries might have attached flight sickness bags to their microfilm readers like a Canadian library mentioned by Baker did, but it is telling that microfilm readers never became popular outside of libraries and government institutions, despite having been in use for over half a century. Baker mentions one scientific journal that was published only on microfilm, which is actually still more than I would have expected; I’m unaware of any book ever published exclusively on microfilm.
Rebecca Rego Barry was one of the researchers who benefited from a treasure trove of newspapers that had been saved from dispersal by Baker immediately before Double Fold was published. She used them to sift through a decade’s worth of Herald Tribune, searching for articles written by a columnist whom she was analyzing for her thesis. “Could the articles be found on microfilm? Theoretically they could, with another year and an extra set of eyes, if whoever had microfilmed it had done a decent job in the first place.”
The “decent job” part turns out to be really important. Because you need a machine to read them, microfilms are harder to casually inspect for quality, which gave them the nickname “the invisible product.” Baker enjoys listing examples of lazy operators skipping pages and producing incomplete films, but the really big issue is technical. If you aren’t very careful when developing the microfilm, “residual hypo” – image-processing chemicals that weren’t rinsed away during processing – will damage the microfilm and blur the text, often beyond the point of legibility. Put all this together and you get to the number of 50% of all received microfilms that were rejected by the Library of Congress in the mid-1970s. The problem? Over half of these rejected microfilms weren’t returned to the vendor, but were accepted into the Library’s collection despite their faults, such was the hurry to modernize.
Lastly, microfilms themselves don’t age very well. Just like paper, there are different kinds of plastics being used for microfilm (as well as microfiche, which is a lower-resolution version of microfilm, and similar-but-abandoned technologies such as Microcards), and Baker lists the ways in which each of them is sensitive to damage. The main form of damage is fading due to prolonged light exposure, but even worse is what can happen if all that focused light on a small strip of film causes the temperature to increase too much, which can lead to the film basically getting blotted out.
Sometimes, all of this can lead to ironic consequences, such as when Baker tried to consult the papers of Verner Clapp, the number-two person in the Library of Congress during the 1950s and one of the most passionate supporters of microfilm.
All Clapp’s notes are on paper, easily read today. Clapp’s CIA file, on the other hand, is an unfortunate victim of the Cold War mania for micro-preservation: it looks to have been inexpertly filmed at some point, and it has undergone a severe fading, as microfilm does when technicians don’t take care to rinse off the hypo fixative. The copy that the CIA sent me is poignantly stamped with the words BEST COPY AVAILABLE on almost every undecipherable page. Some of these pages are, though uncensored, completely unreadable.
Of course, it would be easy for none of this to matter at all in 2021. Despite its downsides, microfilm had the major advantage that it could be copied at will, which made a bunch of rare items suddenly accessible to libraries all over the country. Baker often stresses that he has nothing against the technology as such, as long as it is used merely to supplement paper collections. As it happens, however, this was not the case. What happened instead was that microfilm became part of the plan to get rid of paper almost entirely.
The second key part of this jigsaw is paper deterioration. Paper from the 18th century and earlier usually ages quite well, the reason being that it was produced from rags, i.e. old clothes and other discarded textile. The upside of rag paper is that it was made from 100% recycled material, while the obvious downside is that there is a limited supply of old rags in the world. Around 1850, this led to the introduction of wood-pulp paper. Wood is plentiful, but using it to make paper usually required procedures that resulted in a slightly acidic final product, and the acids slowly damage the cellulose fibers of which paper consists. This is why paper made after 1850 often goes yellow over time, and is much more brittle than either ancient or modern rag paper.
Before reading Baker’s book, I had heard the story about the inevitable slow decay of wood-based paper a bunch of times, and it was usually told as a categorical truth: wood-based paper is trash, it will literally fall apart sooner or later, and the only way to really preserve it are semi-experimental treatments to remove the acids from the paper. I scratched my head at this, since I know from my own collection that there are lots of different kinds of paper. There are plenty of 100-year-old books on wood-pulp paper which look brand-new, or else the paper is slightly yellowed at the edges but otherwise OK, or perhaps the paper has gone entirely yellow and is obviously brittle, but as long as you treat the book well, it isn’t going to fall apart, and you can read it a number of times without any major damage. I always thought that I’m somehow affected by survivorship bias, and didn’t give the matter too much consideration.
It wasn’t until I read Double Fold that Baker gave me the answer to this conundrum. Yes, Baker contends, paper does go brittle over time, but the reaction proceeds much more slowly without oxygen and light, which means that a closed book on a shelf will age at a negligible rate (loose sheets of paper exposed to the air, however, will quickly turn yellow). Also, once the chemicals on the surface of the paper have reacted with the air, the overall reaction will slow down and the book will age more slowly, rather than more quickly, as the time progresses. Most importantly, paper can be brittle in the sense that it will quickly tear, or fall apart when crumbled, but this isn’t relevant to the way books are used in a research library. As long as you use a 19th-century wood-paper book as you’re supposed to (that is to say, just as carefully as you would consult a 19th-century rag-paper book), it will survive without much trouble. There’s no reason why a somewhat brittle yellowish book couldn’t still be on the shelves a century from now.
If all this is true, how come we’ve come to believe that wood-pulp paper is terminally endangered and turning to dust? Baker’s answer is: bad science. Most of what we know about the long-term fate of paper comes from studies on accelerated aging, where researchers usually treated paper at high temperatures (i.e. baked it in an oven) until it broke down completely, and then used the Arrhenius equation or its derivations to extrapolate how long it would take for the same process to occur at room temperature. Of course, this is just a model, and it has a substantial downside that it was never actually tested against reality; as Baker pointed out (and Cox doesn’t object to anywhere in his refutation), there had never been a study performed over a longer period of time that would actually demonstrate how paper ages naturally, and how much strength it loses over decades in the library, rather than minutes in the oven.
Accelerated aging tests are difficult to do on each book individually, so in order to quantify the fragility of their books, librarians came up with a much simpler test – the “double fold” test from which Baker’s book takes its title. To do a double fold test, you take the corner of a book, fold it, press down the fold, unfold the paper, and fold it again to the other side. You keep doing this until the paper snaps. For each pair of folds that it endures, it gets one unit of double fold value (dfv): e.g. if it breaks after the first fold, it has a dfv of 0.5. Each library has its own threshold of how few folds a book must endure to become officially brittle, but the official implication of the fold test is always the same: a book with a low fold value is at the end of its lifespan, and the only thing we can do for it is some sort of palliative care, if not euthanasia.
Baker will have none of this. He agrees that while the fold test captures some aspect of paper quality, it doesn’t have much relevance to the expected lifespan of books, or the number of uses they can endure before some sort of catastrophic collapse. Instead, Baker proposes, half-seriously and half-in-jest, a new means of testing the durability of books: “the Turn Endurance Test.” You take a book, open it in the middle, and flip the page, as you would when reading. Then you flip it back. Baker applies both tests to a book from 1893 which he happens to be reading at the moment. The double fold test produces a value below 0.5 – a death sentence in most libraries. The Turn Endurance Test, however, shows that the same book can endure hundreds of turns of a single page without any kind of damage.
That’s not how the librarians saw it, though. Baker chronicles how the rhetoric about brittle paper progressed during the 1970s and 1980s and became increasingly extreme. At first, brittle paper was endangering the long-term survival of modern books. Then, it was an immediate threat to their survival. Then, the books weren’t just falling apart anymore: they were literally turning into dust. By the late 1980s, the catastrophic rhetoric had reached its apex: “10 million books in major American libraries will not survive this century” was written in 1988; “more than a quarter of books in libraries will not survive this century,” in 1990, ten years before the century’s end. Needless to say, they did survive – or rather, would have.
As long as the books were merely described as brittle and fragile, one might still propose to save them through the traditional means: restricting access, careful handling, and conservation, combined with non-destructive imaging to reduce the number of researchers who needed to consult the originals. However, if these books were literally on their death bed, about to disappear into thin air no matter what we did for them, then…well…there was no reason why we should do anything more for them. We might as well chuck them out.
Shelf Space and Book Destruction
The 1988 film Slow Fires, which turned its director Terry Sanders into a household name in American libraries, was one of the cleverest pieces of anti-paper propaganda ever made, and Baker devotes considerable attention to it. The movie starts slowly, with scenes of crumbling marble inscriptions and papyri, accompanied by sorrowful music, followed by clips from interviews with famous scholars, all of whom emphasize how much they value working with primary sources. In the following scene, we are led through the Florence library in the aftermath of the destructive floods of the river Arno, and through the ruins of a nameless burnt-out library, accompanied by more of the same solemn music. A sensitive viewer might have shed a tear at these scenes, and it looks obvious that this is a movie about the value of preserving our cultural heritage, and the importance of historical artifacts.
In the scene that follows, we enter a preservation department of a major library, where the microfilming of a rare 1920s bound newspaper is just underway. The worker explains the microfilming process to us, while she slowly slashes the volume’s binding and proceeds to cut up individual pages and feed them into the filming device.
The process in question is called guillotining a book, and according to Baker, it was the logical outcome of the paper-brittleness myth, combined with the passion for microfilming. What made these two deadly was a secret ingredient – the desire to free up shelf space. There were few librarians in history who did not at some point complain about the lack of space. However, this particular problem always had two different solutions: either increase space, or reduce the number of books. For large research libraries, the first option was always the default one, since it was obvious that with the growth of human knowledge, the number of books necessary for future researchers would grow as well.
All of this changed after WWII. In a wave of futurist ideology that swept across US libraries, it suddenly wasn’t desirable anymore to keep expanding and piling up paper. Just like computer-manufacturers kept trying to compress their machines, a good modern library was suddenly a library that kept miniaturizing. If not literally to get smaller over time, the library of the future should at least try to keep its size constant, no matter how large the influx of new publications might be. Of course, this meant that even in the largest US libraries, there would be increasingly little room for paper publications.
Baker quotes Fremont Rider, a poet-cum-businessman-cum-librarian who pioneered Microcards (the unsuccessful precursors of microfilm) and whose work had an immense influence on later Librarians of Congress. A library which has outgrown its building could simply buy another building, wrote Rider, but alas, increasing storage space is just “a tacit confession of past failure” – hence, librarians should feel ashamed of themselves for relying on such low-tech solutions. He then introduced the concept of a Microcard, and stated that, with this technology, “for the first time in over two thousand years, libraries were being offered a chance to begin again.” Such a technological shift would produce a saving in storage costs which “came gratifyingly close to 100%” – assuming we got rid of all the books, of course.
It didn’t require a huge leap of logic, then, for Rider to propose that Microcards should be made by cutting up the books in question before filming them, since there won’t be a need for these books afterwards. Baker follows Rider’s intellectual genealogy through Verner Clapp at the Library of Congress, who wrote a eulogy to Rider in a 1964 library science textbook, and through the network of Clapp’s own disciples. One of Clapp’s protégés, John H. Ottemiller, wrote pointedly in the 1960s that the library of the future has a “need for putting greater emphasis on the discarding of materials rather than their storage.”
Of course, microfilming a book isn’t free, and microfilming an entire library can be much more expensive than just storing it somewhere. After a major cost-benefit analysis came out in 1957 which disfavored microfilm, Clapp responded by having the Library of Congress commission its own study in 1961. The conclusion he got was that assuming a library could sell enough copies of its microfilm, the process would pay for itself – but only if they sped it up by cutting up the books and filming them page-by-page. Consequently, microfilming could be performed without any downsides – none, that is, “except the destruction of the text.”
Thus sprang into action the ominously named “preservation by destruction” (a phrase actually used by its proponents, not my or Baker’s invention). Baker likes to point out the Orwellian way in which modern-day book destroyers hijacked the very language of book salvaging. The microfilm departments in libraries were named “Preservation Departments,” in the vein of “Ministry of Peace” and “Ministry of Love.” Of course, the public was mostly unaware that the primary task of a Preservation Department is to cut up books and trash them afterwards. Inside the library, tensions often arose between the people working in conservation departments, whose job was to carefully restore old books, and those in “preservation” departments, whose job was to destroy them. Baker speaks with an employee in a book conservation department, who recalls that the microfilmers were often referred to unflatteringly as “thugs” – in return, the book restorers got themselves the nickname “pansies.”
Once the system was in place, it fed on itself. The logic was as follows: a library that bought a microfilm imaging device needed to use it as much as possible, in order to recoup the costs. Part of the profits came from sales of microfilm to other libraries, but a more certain profit came from the reduction in storage costs. Of course, if the books were going to be discarded anyway, it was hard to resist cutting them up to reduce filming costs even more. And if everyone involved believed that the books were terminally brittle anyway, there was no need to feel bad about any of this – they were on the death bed anyway, and if they only had one use left in them before they spontaneously disintegrated, then that last use better happen in the microfilming department.
How did Slow Fires get away with showing the dismemberment of rare items to the public? By pretending that nobody wants to be doing any of this. “Nobody likes microfilm,” says one of the scholars interviewed by the crew. In another shot, the historian Barbara Tuchman explains how she did research on one of her books by combing through old microfilms – she would have much preferred working with paper books, but given that she only had microfilm on offer, she accepted this as a fact of life and pulled through. Even the worker who is filmed cutting up the old newspapers indulges in a moment’s reflection. “It kind of bothers me to guillotine newspaper collection, because I know the actual papers are not going to go back on the shelves,” she notes. The hesitation does not last for longer than a few moments, though: “but to contain the information on microfilm is the ideal way to preserve the newspapers.”
Of course, it wasn’t the ideal way. Baker’s frustrated attempts to get America’s chief librarians to explain their discarding policy feel like an endless progression of motte and bailey. The motte is that terminally endangered books need to be microfilmed to preserve their intellectual content; the bailey is that libraries should ditch paper books and switch to microfilm in order to modernize and miniaturize. Baker notes that several newspapers, such as The New York Times, produced a few special durable rag-paper editions every day, specifically for libraries. All for nothing: the libraries ended up ditching these volumes nonetheless. Patricia Battin was the president of the national Commission of Preservation (!) and Access and one of the most ardent supporters of microfilm:
’Yes, I’m sure that there are books that were microfilmed that probably were not that brittle,’ Battin says now. ‘We had great debates among the populace as to whether you took the collection approach or the individual-copy approach, and decided for the initial filming grants that the collection approach made the most sense.’ To me she quoted the French adage: ‘The best is the enemy of the good.’ Of course, the bad can be the enemy of the good, too.
What did we lose?
Baker spends a considerable amount of time proving that microfilming was a losing proposition in the financial sense. He’s probably right, but few people care about financial malpractice in libraries enough to read 300 pages about it. Instead, 20 years after its publication, the value of Double Fold hinges entirely on the value of historical material that was lost from US libraries during the microfilm craze, and that is difficult or impossible to replace. So, what did we lose?
1) Even though microfilm was almost exclusively a black-and-white technique, a lot of the material discarded in favor of microfilmed copies was in color. A major part of Baker’s book is the story of how he saved a large amount of historic newspapers that had been put on auction by the British Library and were, in many cases, the most complete print runs still in existence. Among these was the New York “World,” an illustrated turn-of-the-century newspaper which once had a readership of one million and which had catapulted Joseph Pulitzer into fame and fortune. Many of the issues Baker acquired were possibly the last in existence, and in Double Fold, Baker poignantly juxtaposes pictures of the original full-color illustrations with the same images in the microfilmed editions of World (black-and-grey blobs, barely recognizable as illustrations).
Notably, Cox argues in “Vandals in the Stacks?” that trashing these illustrated newspapers – they were independently discarded by a number of different libraries – had been a mistake and that librarians should have kept them around in the original. He also argues that discarding things should be a necessary part of being a librarian and that librarians are perfectly capable of judging what needs to be discarded and what doesn’t, without the interference of outsiders like Baker. He doesn’t seem to be aware of any contradiction here.
2) When libraries each have their own copies of a certain book or a newspaper, there is a high degree of redundancy involved. Major newspapers in particular would usually print several editions a day; each library would only end up receiving and storing one of these. More importantly, each library would randomly lack a few issues here and there, but you could probably find these in the next library if you needed them.
Conversely, the whole point of microfilming was that only one library produces the microfilm and then sells copies to all the others, which can now happily discard their own print runs. Since Library of Congress regulations officially declared a microfilmed print run of a newspaper complete even if it was missing “a few” issues for each month, this means that plenty of officially sanctioned microfilmed print runs had holes in them. If a certain issue wasn’t in the possession of whoever had done the microfilming, it would slowly disappear from the record entirely, as everyone else would get rid of the bound volumes in favor of microfilm.
It’s interesting that Cox’s book is centered on a refutation of this single point. His main argument is that libraries can’t keep everything – even keeping a single copy of every historical US newspaper (or other publication) in some library or other in the USA would be so taxing as to be literally impossible. He doesn’t explain how libraries managed to find enough money to do exactly this up to the 1950s (despite the US being a much poorer country back then, and with a much smaller percentage of GDP diverted to public services). In the end, he forfeits his entire argument when he mentions in passing that working in Austrian libraries is relatively tedious because they hold so few items in microfilm. Indeed, at least in Europe, librarians seem to be managing the impossible task of storing a few copies of every historical publication quite well.
3) Obviously, an image does not in any way preserve the material aspect of the paper or the binding. If you’re researching the different kinds of paper used for newspaper production in the 19th and 20th centuries, you’re out of luck. Baker mentions two particularly annoying examples. The first was a newspaper edition from 1830 which claimed to have been printed on an experimental run of wood paper, decades before wood-pulp paper became common. Ironically, the newspaper in question was mentioned in a famous 1940s textbook on papermaking, but the author of the textbook was unable to do any chemical analyses, since the librarians jealously guarded the volumes and wouldn’t let him take any samples. When Baker rang up the library in question in the 1990s, they told him that they had ditched the newspapers.
The second example is even more interesting. In the 1850s, the US imported rags for paper production from Egypt on several occasions, and several journalists at the time reported that the deliveries had consisted of mummy wrappings. At least one newspaper, the Syracuse Daily Standard, proclaimed to its readers that it was being printed on mummy paper. This could in principle be verified by molecular analysis, but unfortunately almost all the libraries which had carried print runs of the Daily Standard had thrown them away. It’s possible that this helped us avoid the mummies’ curse, though in my opinion, getting recycled a second time made them even angrier. Maybe having lost so much historical material was part of the curse.
4) Most notably, an old book or newspaper isn’t just a source of information, it’s also a historical artifact. A downside of Baker’s book is that he largely accepts the terms of the game as dictated by the librarians, and focuses on the informational value of the destroyed volumes. It’s not that libraries were completely oblivious to the inherent value of old books, but rather that they established a dichotomy: on one side, there was a small number of “rare” books with obvious historical value, such as inscribed first editions and Renaissance-era books, and on the other side, there was the mass of ordinary books, which were supposed to have value exclusively as vehicles for words and pictures.
Baker counters that this is a wrong way to look at books, since there is no clear demarcation line anywhere: every book is, to an extent, both text and artifact. If nobody counters the idea that a pamphlet from 1700 should be preserved for its own sake, even if there is a perfect electronic copy available, then the same should also hold for a rare pamphlet, book, or newspaper edition from 1900. In fact, Baker’s problem is that he doesn’t have much material to argue against, since the great proponents of microfilm had mostly been so oblivious to this issue that they didn’t even bother mentioning it.
He does, however, manage to find a quote by Patricia Battin, which could serve as the epitome of the High Modernist mindset in American libraries: “the value, in intellectual terms, of the proximity of the book to the user has never been satisfactorily established.” Everyone might have hated microfilm, everyone might have preferred working with the original historical artifact – but as long as the value of the artifact wasn’t satisfactorily established, there was no reason why not to trash it.
At the time when Baker was writing Double Fold, microfilm as an information medium was already on its way out, and most American newspapers and books had already been transferred to microfilm anyway, which means that it wouldn’t have made much sense for anyone to microfilm them again. Microfilming was quickly giving way to digitalization, but it was fairly easy to produce digital copies from microfilm (rather than from the paper originals themselves). Why not let bygones be bygones then, especially since Baker himself admitted that the destruction of books and newspapers had abated during the 1990s, thanks in part to the “abolitionist” campaign of a few scholars and librarians, led by Thomas Tanselle, a professor at Columbia.
Baker was worried that unless we quickly learned something from the mistakes of the postwar decades, we were bound to make the same mistakes again, and even more egregiously so. It is possible to scan microfilms to produce digital editions of books and newspapers. However, because of all the problems outlined above, from poor legibility to deterioration of film over time to missing pages or incomplete print runs, we often prefer to use the original source once again. The librarians who lobbied for their collections to be microfilmed loved to emphasize that this was a lasting solution, but a mere couple of decades later, Baker notes, we might have to do everything all over again.
The only difference is that in the postwar decades, there were still a lot of historical books and newspapers around to cut up and microfilm, whereas at the time that Baker was writing his book, many of these publications had remained only in a single copy, or even disappeared in printed form entirely. Guillotining books is unnecessary in order to acquire a good image, but it had already been unnecessary in the 1950s or the 1980s, and that didn’t stop librarians from practicing it nonetheless. Baker was worried that if we guillotined newspapers and books again during digitalization, we would be destroying even the last few survivors of the post-war carnage.
Even more importantly, for every book that librarians guillotined during microfilming, several other copies of the same book were ditched by other libraries around the country after they had bought the microfilm produced by the first library. In some cases, these books were sold, and thus preserved by collectors (although in the case of bound newspapers, even when these were sold, they were usually cut up and resold piecemeal by the buyers, which means that they ended up dispersed beyond anyone’s ability to collect a full print run ever again).
Many other books were, however, simply trashed. As a combination of bizarre rules, bureaucratic stubbornness, fear of publicity, and simple inertia, it’s apparently very rare for American libraries to simply donate discarded books to the public. Sometimes the books are sold, but usually they are thrown into the dumpster, regardless of their value. Baker mentions the case of a researcher who tried to take home a copy of a rare book after it had been guillotined and filmed by the Library of Congress; she was told that this is against the rules, and the book was trashed. On the antiquarian book market, copies of the same edition are worth around $2000. Judging by what librarians themselveswriteonline, the dumpster has apparently remained the default option for getting rid of discarded books to the present day.
Twenty years after the publication of Double Fold, the frequency of library books being guillotined for imaging is probably lower that it was in Baker’s time, or at any point after WWII, with the main reason being that there are relatively few books around that haven’t yet been imaged by someone. It’s generally cheaper to pay for someone else’s scans than to do the scanning yourself. However, the very ubiquity of online resources also provides an incentive for libraries to continue purging their collections and trashing the unwanted material. There are plentyofreportsofmajorlibrariestrashingtheirbooks, though the public seldom learns which books were trashed, and how valuable they might have been.
In this sense, all of Baker’s warnings – the losses we face when discarding a variety of paper editions of the same publication, and replacing them with a single digital copy – are still very up-to-date. The only difference is that because libraries nowadays contain so much material that was printed, from the late 1980s onward, on acid-free paper, the brittleness of paper is less useful as an excuse for large-scale deaccessioning. Instead, the main excuses nowadays are lack of space, the presence of digital copies, and the claim that nobody will ever need these books again, anyway. Double Fold provides plenty of reasons why these books and newspapers will continue to be sought after, and why the copies will never be perfect substitutes of the original.
 Unfortunately, only part of “Vandals in the Stacks?” is actually spent refuting Baker’s arguments. Instead, Cox goes off on a number of tangents, including a long refutation of an unrelated essay by Baker from 1994, several complaints about Baker not discussing archives and archivists in Double Fold (Cox is an archivist by profession), and an entire chapter of Cox’s own professional autobiography, whose relevance to the topic of the book is never explained.
Ask a booklover about their favorite hunting grounds, and you’ll see two conflicting urges start to fight one another. On one hand, we like to keep our best spots secret, so that nobody else will ever find them and we’ll get to keep all the loot for ourselves. On the other hand, however, a second-hand bookstore is of no use to anyone if it goes out of business. Brick-and-mortar bookstores are usually not very profitable institutions, and the more customers they have, the longer they’ll manage to stay afloat. Hence, by advertising our favorite stores, we indirectly do ourselves a favor as well. We just have to hope that none of the other visitors will be after the exact same books that we are…
When I travel abroad, I often spend some time snooping around for books, and I often end up slightly disappointed at the paucity of whatever the town in question has to offer. At the same time, I live in Ljubljana, I’ve been a fan of rare books for many years, and yet I’ve only discovered two of the stores mentioned below last year! In a city of 300,000 people! Hence, my inability to find much of interest in [insert foreign town] probably isn’t the fault of local booksellers, but of my own incompetence. To all the similarly incompetent booklovers from outside of Ljubljana (and even those inside it), I trust the following guide will be of use.
My personal favorite bookstore in Ljubljana was of course Bukvarna, the legendary non-profit store to which I have already dedicated a post, but I never shunned the other shops either. During the winter of 2020/21, all the bookstores in the Slovenian capital were closed due to the Covid pandemic. Once they finally reopened in the springtime, I was more than happy to make a round trip across all of them, snapping some pictures and, well, not avoiding the book-buying aspect of the trip either. Most of these places have a weak online presence, and a few don’t bother at all, so if you want to inspect the merchandise, you’ll need to show up in person.
Should my non-Slovenian-speaking readers care about this post? Well, some places have a large selection of foreign-language material and some don’t, but none of them cater exclusively to Slovenian buyers. German, English, and Serbo-Croatian are especially common, and of course, the less common a language is, the cheaper the books. If you offer the seller 1 euro for each of their Lithuanian books, she’ll be overjoyed that the books have finally found a customer.
Since the Slovenian market is relatively small, no bookstore in Ljubljana (or elsewhere in the country) specializes exclusively in rare books. “By appointment only” is a phrase that you’ll never hear when looking for books in Ljubljana. Nonetheless, I organized the bookstores into three roughly delineated sections: the “fancy” antiquarian stores, the regular second-hand stores, and the charity / bargain stores. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they aren’t all worth checking out, regardless of what we are looking for. As the old booksellers’ adage goes, “anything can be anywhere.”
1. Rare-book specialists
To give a category a name like this is to risk offending those who aren’t included in it. In my defence, what makes the following two bookstores special is that each of them holds regular auctions of rare books on Slovenia-related topics. Glavan also serves as the country’s only official court appraiser of rare books, and Trubarjev antikvariat is often referred to unofficially as a go-to place for book valuations. If you find a box of 18th-century Slovenian rarities in your grandma’s attic, these are the guys you should probably see to get them appraised.
Primož Trubar founded Slovenian culture in 1550 when he brought out our first two books, a primer and a catechism. “Trubar’s Antiquarian Bookstore” was founded long after his death, and as far as I know there is no special connection between the man and the bookstore. However, Trubar’s is the oldest in Ljubljana, it was indeed the only one until competition started increasing in the 1980s, and it might just be the best-known. Whether you like it or not, it’s also the most commercial nowadays, after having been taken over by the publishing giant Mladinska knjiga a decade ago. At least this means the store is buffered, to a large extent, against the vagaries of the second-hand book market. For decades, Trubarjev antikvariat was run by Ms Stanka Golob, a friendly old lady who could probably serve as the personification of Slovenian bookselling. She officially retired several years ago, but she’s still around at the bookstore on most days, so you’ll get to see her with a bit of luck.
Trubar’s is located right in the city centre, in a 17th century building opposite the city hall. The store itself isn’t very big, but it manages to offer a fairly decent selection of literature and the humanities, mostly in Slovenian but a lot of it in English and German as well. Before entering, it pays to check out the one-euro selection in front of the door; oftentimes the shelf will be stacked will real gems, and there isn’t a European language that isn’t represented there. As for the rare books inside the shop, Trubar’s tends to save up all the really cool ones for the auctions, but whatever isn’t sold at auction is offered for a fixed price afterwards and displayed in the shop window – yours truly’s favourite spot for window-shopping in Ljubljana. On rare occasions, Trubar’s also hold outdoor sales in their building’s courtyard; even if this isn’t the case during your visit, it still pays to take a peek into the cute sunlit space.
Trubar’s bookstore is located in the oldest part of town and named after a 16th century writer; Glavan’s is named after its still-living founder and located in an underground passage in Ljubljana’s central shopping mall, the Maximarket. Rok Glavan used to be an apprentice at Trubar’s, but then he broke off and founded his own store in the early 2000s. As part of his modern-bookseller image, he also ran a blog for some time, the only blog by a Slovenian bookseller that I am aware of. Unfortunately, the readership apparently wasn’t too big, and the blog stopped updating several years ago. I wonder if I’ll ever get any company in the Slovenian antiquarian-book blogosphere.
If Trubar’s bookstore is small, Glavan’s is positively tiny, just a few bookcases displaying the cream of what he has to offer, with everything else packed in the warehouse. As a consequence, he often participates in fairs abroad, and he takes online sales rather seriously as well. The regular-priced books can be bought online (though perhaps no great bargains there), while just like at Trubar’s, there is a small one-euro bookcase in front of Glavan’s brick-and-mortar store, where your blogger has found some enviable beauties over the years. At the other end of the price range, Glavan’s auctions have a reputation for being fun, not an adjective you’d immediately associate with an auction. Their last one so far was on April 1st, not a joke, though thanks to an unexpected surge in Covid cases, the country briefly went into lockdown again and the auction became their first to be executed online.
2. Regular second-hand bookstores
What unites all of the following is that they don’t specialize in rare antiquarian items, neither do they hold auctions, but they do offer a wide selection of old and modern books for normal second-hand prices. In a radio interview some years ago, the Croatian rare-book dealer Danijel Glavan (no relation to Rok Glavan, I think) compared the diversity of second-hand bookstores in Zagreb favorably with the “three bookstores” supposedly existing in Slovenia. He could hardly have been more wrong. Ljubljana alone can boast more than half a dozen, and the following ones all have the added perk of being close together in the city center. In order not to repeat myself ad nauseam, let me also state here that all of them have a bargain corner outside the front door, which it always pays to check out.
Bookselling magnate Dušan Cunjak would probably deserve a post of his own, since he’s definitely the biggest outlier in this country’s bookselling world. Other booksellers have one store; he has three second-hand bookstores in Ljubljana, as well as several others in smaller Slovenian towns. The number keeps oscillating, as he keeps being pushed out of one town by debts and rent hikes, just to open a bookstore in another one. I have no idea how he does it, and I hope that one day I’ll learn what his secret was.
Cunjak originally came to Slovenia from Serbia and dabbled in several trades before he entered the book world in the late 1980s. He first opened a publishing house with a surprisingly good taste in modern authors, but it nonetheless went bankrupt in a couple of years. After that, Cunjak became known as the king of street bookselling, eventually amassing enough money and reputation to open a brick-and-mortar store in the late nineties. After ten years or so, he added a second one, and from there on the number increased exponentially. He had four stores in Ljubljana at the peak, but one of them had to close and later reopened under new management as Vodnikov antikvariat (below).
The “original” bookstore, on the bank of the Ljubljanica River, is still with us today. Running several bookstores a few hundred meters apart inevitably leads to some specialization, so this one took up the function of Cunjak’s “budget bookstore,” where everything is generally priced from 1 to 5 euros. It’s still run by the old man himself, in accordance with his personal biorhythm. The store is rarely open before 11 or 12, but it stays open long into the evening. Even in June, it’s not unusual to have to squint at the small type while browsing the books on the tables in front, as the sun quietly sets behind the houses on the other bank of the river.
Bookstore #2 is located on a parallel street to #1, back-to-back with the first one, so that if I understand the satellite image correctly, they share a central courtyard and presumably also own a common storage space. I like to think that Cunjak got his inspiration from Foucault’s Pendulum, where Garamond the publisher clandestinely runs two different publishing houses, a respectable one and a vanity press, with different entrances from parallel streets and the two businesses connected by a “secret” corridor. Be that as it may, Cunjak’s “regular-price” bookstore shares quite a few features with its twin brother, not least among them being erratic opening times. Very erratic. I remember some years ago I happened to spend New Year’s Eve in the center of town, and around 10 PM, I strolled down past Cunjak’s bookstore. Amazingly, the lights were on, there were people inside, and there was a sheet of paper pasted over the opening hours on the front door. Written on it: “We will work until we die!”
The last of Cunjak’s three Ljubljana bookstores is the only store in town that specializes in a foreign language; in this case, Cunjak’s native Serbo-Croatian. During the 70-or-so years of Yugoslavia’s existence, Serbo-Croatian was the first foreign language taught in schools, which means that it was also the language of choice for reading books which were not available in Slovenian. Even more books were brought into the country by the many Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian immigrants who arrived to Slovenia.
In the independence year of 1991, Serbo-Croatian was kicked out of schools, the demand for these books suddenly collapsed, and you could build yourself a fine library for a pittance. I don’t think the interest in Serbo-Croatian literature ever really rebounded. The problem is that immigrants tend to cluster into two groups: the ones who integrate so well that they drop their native tongue along the way, and the ones who don’t really read a lot of books in the first place… Cunjak, however, seems to believe there is still a market for these books. The name of the bookstore is “Slovenian-Serbian Club,” envisaged by the owner as a space for cultural events as well as bookselling, though I’m not sure if much ever came out of this.
Antikvariat Alef and Bukvarna Antika
If “Alef” bookstore ever changes its name to “Bet,” these two could market themselves with the convenient acronym ABBA. It’s common for bookstores to be located close to one another, to attract more customers as a group, but this pair is indeed like Siamese twins. The two of them occasionally even advertise themselves together, as a sort of union bookstore, hoping to gain more customers from the synergy. From the bank of the Ljubljanica, a few minutes’ walk from Cunjak, you enter a narrow corridor, climb a few stairs, and on each side you have the door to one of the bookstores.
Both are equally small, just a single room flooded with books, though Alef has subdivided this small space into two even smaller ones. Apart from this spatial symmetry-breaking, there is also a temporal one: Antika is very often closed, for reasons which I am not quite aware of. In the first draft of this post, I even suggested that it went out of business due to Covid, but then after a few sightings of the store being open, I have updated the post accordingly. Both stores have a very fine humanities section – I often found modern editions here which all the other stores claimed to be unprocurable – and huge carts with bargain books that are placed on the river bank outside on sunny days. The inside of both stores is fairly dark, but well-ordered. Indeed, if I had to make a pick, I’d probably choose Alef for the title of Ljubljana’s cutest second-hand bookstore.
As far as I know, Vodnik’s Bookstore is the latest newcomer to Ljubljana’s second-hand-book market. Apparently, the store in question had been destined by Fate to sell books, but who should be doing the bookselling, and how, remains contentious. First the store was one of the nodes of Cunjak’s bookselling empire (see above), then it functioned for some time as the “Little Prince” bookstore, specializing in second-hand children’s books, and presently it bears the name of Valentin Vodnik. In this case, the choice of name is kind of obvious. The store is located on Vodnik Square, right next to Vodnik’s statue (and a minute away from the Vodnik Hall restaurant). Vodnik wrote the first Slovenian poetry, as well as the first cookbook, so he’s kind of an obvious candidate to name these places after.
The bookstore in question probably enjoys the best location in town, right next to the central market and opposite the cathedral. Inside, it’s relatively spacious and airy, a curious contrast with all the other, mostly cramped and overflowing, bookstores; I wonder how it will look like after 10 more years of book acquisitions, though. They also do a small side business in remaindered books. There used to be one more bookstore which dealt with remainders, but they went out of business and now I think Vodnik’s is the only one of its kind in Ljubljana.
The flea market at Breg
There are two flea markets (Slovenian: bolšji sejem or bolšjak) in Ljubljana. One is well-known, located in the center of town, and caters to a large extent to tourists. The other one is less known; situated on a plot on the outskirts of town, near the highway, you’re unlikely to happen upon it by chance. The latter, working-class one, is arguably more fun, or at least a more interesting tourist experience. However, I will discuss it in the next section, so for now let’s talk about about the market which takes place every Sunday morning at Breg, along the bank of Ljubljanica.
Before Covid arrived, one could quickly walk down along the river bank on Sunday morning and stop at only one or two stands, or none, that caught one’s interest. Nowadays, the system is sneakier. To be able to record the number of daily visitors, the organizers cordoned off the long row of stalls from the rest of the pedestrian zone, and set up an entry point where a security guard looms over a bottle of hand disinfectant. The indirect consequence was that now one has to move across slowly and cast at least a few glances at every stall along the line. Not so great for visitors in a hurry, but at least the new system helped me to overcome an old misconception: that the central flea market was expensive.
There are all sorts of sellers, some with an emphasis on modern books, others selling antiquarian material and ephemera, and still others specializing further into areas such as military history. A common trait is that almost nobody sells only books. I trust that my readers enjoy looking at different other kinds of historical objects, so this shouldn’t be too much of a problem; there are plenty of old stamps, banknotes, postcards, posters, old newspapers, and other prints and paper objects. Apart from the eclecticism of the seller’s stock, going to a flea market has one more benefit: it’s the only place in Ljubljana where one can buy books on a Sunday.
There are very few books about the history of book collecting and bookselling in Slovenia, so I will use the opportunity here to recommend one of them to my Slovenian-speaking readers. Stories from the Flea Market (Slovenian: Zgodbe z bolšjaka) is a collection of tales by Ciril Ulčar, one of the pioneers of flea marketeering in Slovenia. Just like the flea market itself, the stories are all over the place, yet this is their asset: Ulčar’s book reads like an FAQ about the flea market. The profiles of sellers and buyers, cases of theft and fraud, how and where to acquire your merchandise, stories of treasures that slipped away…it’s all in there. A few of the stories, where Ulčar talks about valuable books and historical documents that he saved from the trash, are especially close to the subject matter of this blog. I’ll probably come back to Stories from the Flea Market in future posts.
3. Bargain Spots
Some booklovers prefer to do their deals at auctions and via their personal book scouts; others enjoy snooping around piles of dusty bargains, hoping to strike gold. I humbly confess to being much closer to the latter group, so I’m glad that Ljubljana has a bunch of places where one can indulge in this kind of snooping. Some of the following are bona fide charities and some aren’t, but apart from the flea market, they can all be classified as non-profits.
Center ponovne uporabe
The Center for Reuse(CPU) was founded by the municipal trash collecting company (“Snaga”) as part of their drive to minimize the amount of trash that ended up in a landfill, or had to be recycled. The company organizes collection of bulky waste (Slovenian: kosovni odvoz), which can be ordered by citizens twice a year; you pile the trash onto the pavement and Snaga comes in the morning and picks it up. The idea behind CPU was to select objects from these trash piles, such as furniture, clothes, and of course, books, repair them if necessary, and offer them for sale at the store. The financial aspect of the operation was less important than its impact on trash reduction.
Unfortunately, things have gone downhill since then. CPU used to have a really great policy where they would first offer books at fixed prices (mostly one euro per book), the unsold ones were moved to a large pile where they were sold for one euro per kilo, and the ones that still wouldn’t sell would then eventually be moved to a little free library outside the front door. This way, almost every book ended up finding an owner. Recently, they scrapped all this and switched to a different policy. Books are offered for sale on the shelves for a few months…and then the shelves are swept clean and all the books are trashed and replaced with new ones. While this might be “better” in a financial sense, it is completely against the stated purpose of CPU to reduce waste. I’ve asked the shopkeepers a bunch of times to move back to the old system or at least stop trashing the unsold books, but so far all I’ve gotten in response is a bunch of shrugs and mumbles. I know people often donate books directly to the CPU – note that this might not be in the best interest of the books’ long-term survival…
It’s a shame because otherwise the CPU looks really cool – when it comes to Ljubljana’s second-hand bookstores, they could probably receive the “Hipster’s Choice” award. All the furniture, doors, and decorative objects had come from the trash, and many of them were repainted and redecorated by in-house artisans. One of the rooms inside is dedicated entirely to books; especially commendable is the English section, from which I’ve picked up a hefty pile of paperbacks over the years.
The CPU is about 15 minutes’ walk away from the center, next to one of Snaga’s trash-sorting facilities and a stone’s throw from the Ljubljanica. (Why are so many of these places located next to the river?) After the one in Ljubljana became successful, other CPU’s opened in various other towns in Slovenia, so keep that in mind when travelling across the country.
Stara roba nova raba
“Old stuff new use” is a shop run by the Kings of the Street (Slovenian: Kralji ulice) association, which gives homeless people jobs to help them get back on their feet. Their most famous project, which most people know them by, is the Kralji ulice magazine; you’ll often see homeless people around town offering this one-euro publication on street corners. The second-hand store is a less-known side project of theirs. About a third of the shop is given over to books which people donate to them, the rest are clothes and decorative objects.
As this is charity shop, I’m including it in the present section, although the prices are perfectly “normal,” with the exception of the one-euro boxes next to the door. I’ll be honest and admit that this is probably the least impressive second-hand bookstore in Ljubljana. However, it’s close to the city center, almost next to the Ljubljanica (again!), and perfectly worth checking out.
The fleamarket at Cesta dveh cesarjev
Update: Due to a combination of the Covid pandemic and unclear business reasons, the flea market in question seems to have been cancelled for good in the beginning of November 2021, after many years of operation. There have been rumors about a new one being founded on a different location – whatever the result is, I’ll keep you posted.
The flea market at Breg, mentioned above, is the sort of flea market you could easily find in Germany, or Norway, or Japan, or anyplace in the West. Just like all the bookstores I have been talking about so far, the flea market in the center of Ljubljana is nice and tidy. Travel down to Cesta dveh cesarjev at the outskirts of town, however, and you’ll find yourself transported to the heart of the Balkans. A gravel plot tucked between the central waste-processing plant and the used-car fair – the place feels like a Gypsy camp from an old movie. Much more than antiques is on offer here: old appliances, car parts, toys, clothes, and any other second-hand material that can still hope to find a buyer. A lot of the merchandise comes from the trash, especially from the piles of bulky waste that people leave for Snaga to collect (see above). As an occasional dumpster diver, I of course heartily approve.
They always say that you should visit flea markets early in the morning. In this case, the old wisdom holds double: the best items from Cesta dveh cesarjev are often bought up early on Sunday to be resold later in the day at the flea market at Breg. Your correspondent is lazy and likes to sleep in the morning, but coming just before closing time also has its perks, since many sellers will reduce their prices then.
The prices, of course, tend to be appropriate for the setting, one or two euros usually. On average, about a dozen sellers offer books as well, some of them really unimpressive, but with gems strewn around every now and then. The plot isn’t very large, and you probably won’t spend all morning there, but in case you get hungry, there is a makeshift hamburger stand in the center to keep visitors happy.
Ironically, the flea market site can be a bit hard to find, even though the entire area is a flat treeless plain. Even more ironically, alone among the bookselling spots discussed in this post, Ljubljana’s second flea market charges an entrance fee (one euro). Think of it as not just another bookselling spot, though, but as a unique tourist experience. From the entrance booth, as you are being handed your ticket, you can already hear the blaring of radios and the cries of some particularly energetic sellers. If I tried to personify the flea market at Cesta dveh cesarjev, I probably couldn’t do any better that the toothless old regular next to the fence who likes to yell his motto towards potential customers: “ooooooold stuff…beeeeeest stuff!”
The City Library
The present post wouldn’t be quite complete without mentioning Ljubljana’s City Library (Mestna knjižnica Ljubljana), which also runs a tiny side business selling discarded and donated books. The books that the library doesn’t want are mostly donated to the public during a few special occasions each year (for which the librarians deserve some hearty praise), but a few are hand-picked and offered for sale in bookcases close to the entrance. I sometimes feel that the library isn’t trying very hard to maximize sales; unsellable books often languish on the shelves for years, whereas many fairly attractive donated titles seem to be sent directly to the giveaway pile.
For the books themselves, this is a relief, though. The library has an unsavory tradition of putting the prices on colorful stickers which are glued onto the half-titles of the books. If you’re buying a reading copy, fine, but I shudder to think of all the times I have painstakingly tried to remove stickers from otherwise intact rare volumes and signed first editions… The City Library has over a dozen subsidiaries, but only five of them deal in second-hand books: Knjižnica Otona Župančiča (KOŽ), Knjižnica Bežigrad, Knjižnica Prežihov Voranc, Knjižnica Jožeta Mazovca and Knjižnica Šiška. The prices can vary, but most of the books cost less than four euros, and one euro is the most common price.
Even now, I haven’t quite exhausted all the venues for second-hand book buying in Ljubljana. A few ordinary bookstores have second-hand-book corners, there is a regular open-air “garage sale” in the Tabor district where books are also offered, and occasionally booksellers’ stands might pop up outside of the two flea markets. Of course, there is also a large online bookselling world, to the chagrin of all the brick-and-mortar sellers out there. A few “bookstores” operate entirely from cyberspace, including rare-book-specialists and friends-of-the-blog Maks Viktor. There are several bustling bookselling groups on Facebook, as well as an almost inexhaustible supply of books on Bolha, the Slovenian version of eBay. When looking for a specific Slovenian title, Bolha is definitely one of the places you should check.
A common complaint I used to hear from foreign visitors in Ljubljana was that it didn’t take long to see everything; one or two days, and the city was “done.” Now, admittedly, the average tourist isn’t much of a book hunter. But if you are, there is plenty to keep you occupied. Leaving aside all the museums, galleries, and historic libraries, just checking out the above book-buying spots can easily take a few days. And if you do happen to “do” Ljubljana, make a trip to Maribor and check out Bukvarna Ciproš. I guarantee you won’t regret it.
Names and locations
Ljubljana is small, so if you just randomly walk around and keep your eyes open, you’ll probably find most of the above spots on your own. Some of them are harder to locate, though. Here are the addresses.
Trubarjev Antikvariat: Mestni trg 25
Antikvariat Glavan: Trg republike 2 (underground passage)
Antikvariat Cunjak (#1): Gallusovo nabrežje 21
Antikvariat Cunjak (#2): Stari trg 22
Slovensko-srbski klub (Cunjak #3): Trubarjeva cesta 19
Vodnikov antikvariat: Ciril-Metodov trg 15
Antikvariat Alef: Hribarjevo nabrežje 13
Bukvarna Antika: Hribarjevo nabrežje 13
Center ponovne uporabe: Povšetova ulica 4
Stara roba nova raba: Poljanska cesta 14
Flea Market (centre of Ljubljana): Breg
Flea Market (Cesta dveh cesarjev): 46.0623° N, 14.4741° E
The Fate of Books hasn’t been very active in these last few months, but that doesn’t mean your writer wasn’t engaged in blogging. Some of you might already know the blog Astral Codex Ten (ACX; formerly known as Slate Star Codex), one of the best places online for discussions of science, history, philosophy, politics, and all other areas of nerd interest. In the beginning of the year, ACX announced a book review competition where readers could review a book of their own choice. The finalists would be posted on ACX, after which blog readers could vote for their favourites and thus determine the winner.
True to my calling, I decided to review Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold. For those unfamiliar with the book, Double Fold is an exposé of the mass destruction of books and newspapers that took place in American libraries after WWII. The main culprit is microfilm, a technology which feels hopelessly outdated today. From the 1950s down to the turn of the century, however, it was seen as a revolutionary breakthrough that would allow libraries to store huge amounts of information in a tiny space.
Unfortunately, libraries took the idea and ran with it: either they cut up their books and newspapers for microfilming and trashed the remains, or they bought microfilms elsewhere and then got rid of the redundant paper copies. At least when it comes to newspapers, this means that many 19th and 20th century papers don’t exist in the original anymore at all. All we have are blurred microfilm copies, all in black and white.
Out of more than 100 submissions, the review of Double Fold was shortlisted as one of 17 finalists, which testifies to the continuing relevance of Baker’s book. You can read and comment on the review here; there is also an audio version available here. New finalist reviews continued to be posted on ACX for several months, but now the last one has finally been made public and today the voting has begun. You can read all the finalists here (mine is #6) and vote for your favourite(s) here until the end of June. 😉 After the contest is over, I will of course also post the full review at The Fate of Books.
On Facebook, I recently came across a book that I never expected to see for sale outside of an auction or a fancy rare-book dealer. The book in question was one of the four volumes of the first edition of The Glory of the Duchy of Carniola, printed in 1689. The book’s author, Janez Vajkard (German spelling: Johann Weikhart) Valvasor, used to gaze at Slovenians from the 20-tolar banknote; nowadays we have the euro, but a bunch of places across Slovenia, ranging from libraries to restaurants and mountain cabins, continue to carry his name. It makes sense: Glory is an unprecedented magnum opus that summarized just about everything there was to know about the Slovenian heartland province of Carniola. A full set of the recent Slovenian translation will cost you several thousand euros, as will a well-preserved set of the 19th-century reprint. However, the seller of this first-edition volume admitted quite candidly that he wasn’t sure if his book was worth anything at all.
Where’s the catch? It’s true that the binding was almost gone, but that’s what we have bookbinders for. Even a rebound copy of a rare book can still be worth a lot of money. The real problem was that the book was extremely incomplete. Not only were all the fold-out panoramas and maps missing from it, but a bunch of pages with text were gone as well, so that you couldn’t even really call it a reading copy anymore. The title page was present, and you could still use the book to boast that you have a Valvasor first edition at home. However, for most bibliophiles, having such a miserable gutted volume on the shelf would simply be…sad.
So, how did this happen? Sometimes kids will play around with books and cut interesting pictures from them, or very unscrupulous adults will cut an entire page out to save time on making notes. In this case, though, there is no need for such an implausible explanation. The answer is quite simple: somebody cut out all the maps and the pages with illustrations in order to sell them separately to collectors. Even though the remaining book is almost worthless, selling the illustrations separately probably brought in more money than a complete book would have fetched. In most cases, destroying books is obviously a waste of money, but in this particular case, book destruction is literally a for-profit activity.
Most people who haven’t ventured far into book collecting, or who focus on modern editions, are barely aware that antiquarian bookstores often offer a selection of old maps apart from the books themselves. Nowadays, maps tend to be printed as separate objects, if they’re printed on paper at all. During the 20th century, if large maps or similar illustrations were included in books, they were usually tucked in at the back and could be removed without damaging the book itself. By contrast, early modern books usually had their maps bound inside, and it was less common for a map to be printed and sold separately. This means that most old prints which you see at rare book stores had once been cut out of a rare book.
Returning to the example of Valvasor, you can find a bunch of ads for his works online. Mostly, these aren’t ads for entire books, but for individual pages from them. This is quite logical: a single book has hundreds of illustrations, and when somebody cuts a book up, this will results in hundreds of online listings. So the question now is, who is buying all this? Do people genuinely think that these images were originally printed separately? Or, more likely, do they push moral quandaries aside when presented with the opportunity to own a (literal) fragment of history for a very accessible price?
1. The Arguments
The practice of cutting out illustrations from old volumes is called “breaking up” books, and it’s probably clear by now just how much I am against it. However, let’s start with the arguments in favour of this practice. Probably the main argument is that it allows ordinary people to own a piece of history that would otherwise be inaccessible to them. An entire Nuremberg Chronicle, one of the world’s most famous incunabula, costs as much as a small apartment. A single page from the book, however, might be had for 30 euros. Wouldn’t it be something to get a 15th century print under your Christmas tree?
To this, my answer is: there are already perfectly enough old books for everyone out there! (Even if you’re not rich!) Assuming you merely wish to own a historical artefact, you can easily find books from the early 1800s for a few euros apiece, or a 17th century book (without missing pages, of course) for perhaps 50 euros. Even incunabula aren’t that expensive, with some of them being sold for less than 1000 euros. People overestimate how expensive old books are. Yes, collecting Renaissance-era books is not cheap, because given that you are a collector, you will presumably want to buy more than just a couple of them. However, there are relatively few people out there who couldn’t afford to buy even a single rare book at some point in their life, if they wanted to.
(Also, there are already tons of broken-up books around the world. Even if you specifically want to own an image that used to be part of an old book, there is no need to continue breaking up books for this.)
The other argument is that if a book is already in poor condition, breaking it up can improve the condition of its parts. Imagine you have a book which is for some reason already missing a few maps, or perhaps the last page. You can either have an obviously incomplete copy, or break it up and thus acquire several “complete” maps and illustrations.
My answer to this is that the less a book is mutilated, the easier it is to find the missing parts and fix it. In this sense, think of a book as the equivalent of a vintage car. Assuming a book is not very rare, it’s still plausible to hope to find one missing part, but once you’re lost 100 small parts, you’re increased the entropy so much that it’s just not possible anymore to bring them all back together in anyone’s lifetime. And if a book is very rare to begin with, then you definitely shouldn’t be cutting it up and scattering the parts against the winds!
Indeed, my main argument is that breaking up books irretrievably destroys their historical meaning and context. A rare book is an object with a story and a provenance; almost every book from before the 18th century has a signature somewhere, which can often be traced to some historical personality. There are also marginalia, notes, stamps from long-gone libraries, and sometimes entire essays about someone’s life, written at the back of a book, from back when paper was expensive and hard to come by. An illustration that is removed from such a book will have its history erased, becoming just another identical copy on the market. Technically, nothing is destroyed by cutting up a book into pieces, but the rump that stays behind will be shunned by most collectors, and is at considerable risk of eventually landing in the trash.
Anyway, all of these arguments were more or less based on the assumption that the books in question are not so well preserved, and not so very rare, either. Oftentimes, the people who break up books cannot even cling to such flimsy excuses.
2. Book Breaking in Practice
In William Blades’ classic work The Enemies of Books, he lists the eponymous enemies in order from least to most conscious of what they are doing. We begin with fire and water, move on to worms, then rats, little children, and up to ignorant owners. Close to the end of the list are bookbinders – never missing a chance to trim the margins of a rare book – and after them come…collectors. Apparently, each booklover has their own interpretation of what it means to love books, and in some cases, the love in question might be a very deadly one.
The patron saint of perverted booklovers is John Bagford, an 18th-century antiquarian who set it upon himself to compile a history of printing. With this in mind, he travelled across Britain, visiting libraries and bringing home a few title pages of old books from each visit, having torn them out as souvenirs. He then glued these pages into special scrapbooks, which might have served a modest educational purpose back when it wasn’t yet possible to photograph books or print reproductions from them. Nowadays, however, the scrapbooks merely serve as a testament to the author’s barbarity. I have no idea how Bagford pulled this off, given that even then, I imagine librarians weren’t exactly indifferent to people tearing out pages from library books. Perhaps Bagford was helped in his enterprise by having been one of the three founding members of the Society of Antiquaries. I imagine him as the Society’s equivalent of Salazar Slytherin – one whose dark influence still continues today.
If William Blades’ was the Victorian era’s foremost advocate of the book, this torch has now passed to Nicholas Basbanes. Basbanes is known primarily as a chronicler of the world of book auctions and loaded collectors, which he has described in A Gentle Madness. However, he is a passionate defender of both the valuable and the more “plebeian” sort of old books against all kinds of enemies. In his immensely readable book A Splendor of Letters, he raises his voice against modern-day biblioclasts, and so it’s from Basbanes’ book that I have lifted two stories of egregious abuses.
During his book-cutting spree, John Bagford seems to have been fairly indiscriminate in choice of victims. The latter-day Bagfords, by contrast, all seem to be after the same prey. A highly desired prey are the Birds of America, the ornithologist J. J. Audobon’s 1830s magnum opus which is considered to be one of the most beautiful books of all time. It’s also one of the most valuable, but that doesn’t prevent people from making even more money by breaking the book up. In the early 2000s, an intact four-volume set would cost you nearly 10 million dollars, while each of the 435 individual plates went for $3,000 to $150,000 – adding up to more than 10 million, of course.
Basbanes also presents some even more shocking numbers. At the time of his writing, about 125 of the original 200 sets were known to be preserved intact. This suggests that around 75 sets had already been broken up (books this valuable will seldom just disappear from the record). However, only around 15 complete copies were known to reside outside of institutions at that time. Assuming that libraries don’t cut up their books, this would imply that 4 out of 5 copies outside of an institution had already been broken up! You’d think a book as elite as Birds of America would be unlikely to ever come to grief – in reality, a Bible is safer at a Satanist meeting than Audobon’s book is in the hands of a book dealer.
At least there will always be a few complete copies of Birds of America somewhere, residing in a library if perhaps not with a private collector. The same cannot be said anymore for the Shahnameh, one of the most beautiful Persian manuscripts of all time. The “Book of Kings” was written by the poet Ferdowsi in the 10th century and copied in several lavish manuscripts before printing (re)arrived to Persia in the 17th century. Perhaps the most famous is the volume produced in the 1500s for king Tahmāsp I, which is nowadays known as the “Houghton Shahnameh.” Basbanes compares this unfortunate moniker to the Parthenon marbles having been named after lord Elgin, who had them dismantled and shipped them off to Britain. Perhaps it would be a better comparison to say that calling it the “Houghton Shahnameh” is kind of like if we referred to the former Temple of Arthemis at Ephesus as “Herostratus’ Temple.”
As it happens, Houghton was the last in a long line of illustrious owners of the Shahnameh. He acquired the book in 1959, by which time his reputation as a rich collector and donator to major institutions had already been established. He bought the Shahnameh at an auction and loaned it out to Harvard University, with the understanding that their library would produce a facsimile edition, and with the unspoken implication that Houghton might end up turning the loan into a donation.
What happened next is rather confusing. Apparently, Harvard made very little progress with the facsimile edition, and in the meantime the IRS began to investigate Houghton’s practise of donating rare books to major libraries – since this resulted in tax breaks, and the amount of tax reduction was usually based on Houghton’s own generous valuation of the donated books, his donations tended to effect his overall financial status quite favourably. Frustrated with both of these setbacks, Houghton withdrew the Shahnameh from Harvard and did what Basbanes interprets as a “let me show you what my books are really worth” gesture: he broke it up into individual plates and first donated part of them to the New York Metropolitan Museum. The museum had not expected this at all, so regardless of what they might have thought about Houghton’s decision, they didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth.
At that point, there was still hope that the leaves of the Shahnameh might remain together, but Houghton quickly dashed these hopes by putting a few of the leaves up for auction. They fetched very high prices, which Houghton gladly used as a retroactive justification of the tax break he had got for the donation to the Met. Finally, the remaining plates were offered to the new Iranian Islamic government, which was eager to have at least part of a national treasure repatriated, and gladly traded them for a piece of modern art which used to belong to the recently deposed Shah.
Sometime after all of this transpired, Harvard finally shook itself out of its slumber and brought out a luxurious facsimile edition of the “Houghton Shahnameh.” By then, the facsimile was uniquely valuable, since it represented a book which did not exist anymore, at least not as a single object. In order not to anger their almost-donator, the compilers of the introduction carefully sidestepped the issue of the book’s destruction. Despite its technical proficiency and detailed scholarship, this gives the book a rather Soviet tinge – one of those self-censored texts that only make sense if one reads them between the lines.
In the first story I’ve presented, individual leaves were removed from books; in the second story, dozens of leaves at once; in the third one, all the leaves. The logical conclusion would be to go even further and cut up even individual leaves into pieces. Needless to say, this too has been done. A British handbag manufacturer offers special, £2500-apiece products which distinguish themselves from ordinary handbags by containing a small piece of an original letter by Charles Dickens. I’ve heard of some crazy shit, but this one left even me stunned.
In this case, nobody can even pretend anymore that there is some kind of interest to collectors being served. The closest analogy I can think of are the relics of saints that were such a prominent feature of medieval Catholicism. The bones of a saint were broken up and scattered across European churches to help the saints with interceding in their supplicants’ lives. What is Dickens protecting his wearers against? Writer’s block?
At least the author of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations was a peaceful soul and probably wouldn’t bother to haunt whoever happens to wear the remains of his manuscripts. The same company also produces handbags containing vandalized bits of handwriting by Queen Victoria and by King Frederick William III of Prussia, among others. As I recall, Prussian monarchs were never exactly famous for their ability to remain indifferent to insults…
Anyway, whoever ends up compiling the next edition of Dickens’ collected works might encounter some awkward moments when they’ll have to update the present locations of our writer’s manuscripts. We’re all used to reading that a certain historically important document was “lost during WWII” or “destroyed in a fire,” but how exactly do you phrase that a manuscript has been cut up and turned into handbags?
Given how few people seem to be opposed to “book art,” which involves cutting up perfectly good old books and turning them into collages and statues (compared to which John Bagford’s title-page-scrapbooks seem positively benign), I have little hope that book-breaking will become any less popular during our lifetimes. If anything, it might become even commoner. Increasingly few people seem to be interested in collecting books, just as fewer and fewer still read them (at least on paper); on the other hand, the market for art doesn’t seem to be in any danger of decline. The combination of these two trends might lead increasingly more people to “liberate” works of art from their book-prison, hang them up on a wall, and discard the useless books themselves…
For more conscientious booklovers, the question remains, what to do with the cut-outs already in our possession? This is the same problem faced by collectors of archaeological material: you can have it displayed in your living room, but then you need to constantly explain that no, these swords weren’t dug up illegally, or looted from some museum, they had been in your family for generations… Anyway, my suggestion is to keep displaying these maps and foldouts (if perhaps in some corner which encounters fewer visitors). After all, you’re honouring the illustrators, mapmakers, and printers, not the people who cut these books up. At the same time, however, do exercise caution when buying cut-out material. Make sure not to feed the wolves.
Basbanes, Nicholas. A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World. New York: Perennial, 2003.
Blades, William. The Enemies of Books. London: Elliot Stock, 1880.
Eric W. Steinhauer is a household name among German-speaking bibliophiles. Steinhauer, a lawyer-cum-theologian-cum-librarian, has carved out a niche for himself over the years as an expert on the dark side of books and libraries: libraries as places of death and burial; contagious and deadly books; the association between libraries, the Devil, and monsters… His books are perhaps best characterized as non-fictional spinoffs of The Name of the Rose, with each of them discussing a different aspect of the grisly association between books and death. After several such volumes, published from 2006 onward, he brought all of these topics together into a primer on the dark side of the book, which came out in 2014 at the publisher Lambert Schneider.
Book Tombs (Büchergrüfte), as the volume is called, is fairly short at 134 pages and might best be thought of as an essay about the future of the book. Steinhauer is writing not least from the position of a library director who is unsatisfied with the role that libraries are increasingly playing in a digital world: places to hang out and work on one’s laptop, with perhaps a paper notebook alongside, but with increasingly few actual books being perused by the patrons. Afraid of being reduced to insignificance over the course of the 21st century, many libraries are trying to make themselves as friendly as possible to the reader, in order to attract a varied clientele.
Steinhauer understands where this reasoning comes from, but claims that the nice and fluffy approach is insufficient to secure the future of the library. Instead, he makes a proposal that is both simple and ingenious: in order to have a future, libraries must purposely cultivate their dark aspects. In his own words, “the library of the future will be morbid, or it will cease to be.” He slowly develops this idea during the course of the book, and only states it clearly at the end, so let’s first follow him along the way.
He starts with a chapter on the most obvious connection between books and death, which is at the same time perhaps the most forgotten one. In a time when most public libraries are large well-lit spaces with light music playing in the background, we have forgotten that libraries used to be places to preserve human remains. The library-as-burial-place has a rich history – Steinhauer traces it back to ancient Rome, where strict rules on intramural interment were sometimes loosened to allow burial in a library, down through the Middle Ages and right up to the 19th century. The connection worked both ways, so that just as people could be buried in a library, a library could be constructed on top of a burial site. Even today, libraries within secularized churches preserve the remains of people who wanted to be buried close to God, but instead found themselves beneath the Geography section.
Of course, any kind of burial is dark, and personally, I could hardly wish for a better place to have my remains interred than beneath the right kind of library. Then again, it is hard to say what the scores of people who were interred in a library against their will would comment on such burial practices. Before “cabinets of curiosities” were divided up into museums and libraries in the 18th century, it was common for this sort of library to include skeletons and other human remains as anatomical exhibits. These were so common that it’s hard to find much data on them, since few contemporaries would note such trivial details. The human bones were often of unknown origin, but it’s reasonable to assume that many belonged to executed criminals, whose mortal remains could legally be used for scientific purposes. Less common, but still not unheard of, were books bound in human skin, oftentimes exposés of the lives of famous criminals, bound in their personal skin to enhance the reading experience.
One other peculiar creature that Steinhauer has brought back from obscurity is the library mummy, which was a common feature of European libraries between the 17th and 19th centuries, when most of them were relocated to museums. The connection between books and mummies is multi-layered and Steinhauer revels in its unwrapping [pun intended]. Apart from gracing many library halls as Oriental curiosities, mummies were themselves both texts (as the wooden coffins were covered in inscriptions) and sources of texts (especially Books of the Dead, which were regularly tucked into the wrappings). Lastly, it continues to be debated by historians whether mummies were in fact used in the 19th century to make paper. As the story goes, the US imported mummy wrappings from Egypt on at least one occasion to feed its booming paper industry; the story is likely exaggerated, but as the Italians say, se non è vero, è ben trovato.
Another creature given prominence in Book Tombs is the library vampire. Here, Steinhauer again shows himself an expert on the subject, even though the reader is occasionally unsure how vampirology ties into the general framework of his book. At first, we get the impression that vampires belong into this narrative because they were often written about in books; of course, the same can be said of any other dark and paranormal phenomenon, ever. Only later are we directed to the prominent position that books and libraries tend to play in all the major vampire novels. In a detour into literary criticism, Steinhauer highlights a literary device that was used by Bram Stoker in Dracula: at the end of the novel, Stoker’s characters are amazed that apart from their own notes and diaries, they cannot find any evidence that the action which had just transpired actually took place. In this tongue-in-cheek way, Stoker underlined that vampires are nothing but paper beings, daemons conjured up from books and entirely dependent on them.
In a book which discusses the connection between books and death, an obvious question is, what about the death of books themselves? Steinhauer briefly mentions mold, as well as the “slow fire” that is consuming old books printed on acidic paper. Soon after that, however, we reach the subject of modern-day destruction of books, especially by libraries during their deaccessioning. Here the book is at its weakest, as Steinhauer isn’t quite sure what his opinion is, so he appears to be trying to cobble one together as he writes.
He admits quite candidly that German libraries trash enough books each year to fill a decent-sized university library. Is this good or bad? We’re not sure. He opens up the debate about whether libraries should aim to preserve books even if these aren’t being loaned out or consulted anymore. After a brief discussion, he concludes with a closing sentence, “it is reasonable to preserve old books,” which leaves a very lukewarm impression. He also occasionally slides into cynicism. For example, he remarks that thanks to the great losses of ancient literature during the Middle Ages, we can more easily discern the masterpieces of antiquity without them being obscured by the chaff of mediocre writers. Does this mean that it would be easier to appreciate the greatness of Dickens and Browning, had all the works of their less-notable Victorian contemporaries suddenly disappeared? If anything, I think the truth is the opposite.
Of course, Steinhauer is still writing from the position of a library director here. Is he intentionally sounding indecisive in order to avoid attracting the ire of his colleagues? Nicholson Baker created a storm when his book Double Fold came out in 2001, but Baker was a freelance novelist, an outsider, and thus could afford his campaign against libraries’ destruction of books. I imagine Steinhauer has his reasons why he prefers to tread lightly on such topics. Perhaps he also publishes more opinionated writings under a pseudonym somewhere. Only time will tell.
If books can be discarded and killed by their owners, they also have some power to return the favour. Here Steinhauer’s narrative again becomes gripping, as he discusses all the ways that books are able to harm and kill people, both in urban myths and in reality. His discussion of books as supposed carriers or germs and disease, which was a major public scare at the turn of the 20th century, feels remarkably prescient. After lounging in obscurity for a century, the books-as-disease-carriers myth has made a triumphant return during the Covid pandemic. At least here in Slovenia, libraries have instituted obligatory waiting periods before a returned book can be loaned out again. They have also mostly removed, to the great annoyance of yours truly, the shelves with free books which were usually on offer in front of the library door.
It turns out that paper mills were also major carriers of death and disease, this time for real. Before the production of paper from wood was invented, the raw material for paper tended to be old rags, or in other words, clothes which were either discarded by their owners or taken from the dead. Wars and epidemics provided fertile harvesting ground for the latter approach, but when piles of rags were carted from plague-ridden cities down to paper mills, the plague-carrying fleas came along for the ride. And just in case some workers survived the infectious illnesses, the survivors were later brought down by lung disease which was endemic in the dust-filled mills. – It just looks like a piece of paper, but several people had to die so that you could hold it in your hand.
This, as I see it, is very close to the core message of Büchergrüfte. By stressing the ways that books killed and were killed for, the ways that they died and cheated death, and how they oftentimes contained death in their midst, Steinhauer imbues these seemingly trivial objects with a gravity that most of us hadn’t been aware of. It is this gravity which draws our gaze, and which, to extend the metaphor, makes it much harder to simply lift the books up and throw them away like common trash. It is the connection with death that, most importantly, commands respect. Steinhauer’s dictum, which I mentioned earlier, could thus be rephrased as follows: “the library of the future will command respect, or it will cease to be.”
Despite its occasional shortcomings, Steinhauer’s volume is, at the end of the day, a very valuable book. He reminds the reader that the Internet might be a great repository of texts, but only in a library can one find, well, books – books as objects that contain not just text, but also a (hi)story which connects the reader to his own past and those of other people who lived and died with this book before him. To conclude with an idea that Steinhauer plays with a little, but doesn’t quite articulate fully: a library is a place where knowledge becomes a physical object. It is a rock which serves to anchor our culture into place; it gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. A library is a place that inspires awe at the vastness and variety of our past, and Book Tombs does its part in enhancing this sense of awe.
I spent a long time thinking about whether I really wanted to write this post. A very common misconception about old books is that you can divide them up into two categories: 1) rare and valuable books, and 2) everything else. The first category needs to be given special attention, preserved, and protected; the second category is literally trash. You often encounter this dichotomy in online discussions of old books, and even many of the professionals embrace it uncritically. To give an example, there is an apparently popular TV show about searching for antiques at yard sales, which regularly regales its viewers with a quiz titled “Dumpster or No Dumpster;” the implication being, of course, that if a certain item isn’t fit for Sotheby’s, it can safely be thrown away.
I worried that by focusing on a select few items that somebody had trashed and that turned out to be valuable, I would just be feeding this misconception. If everyone is aware that a tiny percentage of old books can be very valuable, this might get people to research their books more carefully before trashing them. However, once the appraisers predictably discover that 99% of their books have little value, they will nonetheless proceed to throw these books out. While better than nothing, this is not exactly a huge improvement of the status quo.
If my readers forgive me for stating the moral of this post in advance, I would like the post to instead help inculcate a deep agnosticism with respect to second-hand books. Yes, some items are obviously very valuable, but even for most books that seem unimpressive at first glance, there is a collector somewhere who is searching for this exact copy. Even when the book itself is common, the signature, library stamp, marginalia, or merely the level of preservation can make it very rare or unique, and even if nobody is interested in it now, somebody might covet this exact copy 50 years from now. Hence, please be nice, help preserve old books even if AbeBooks says they aren’t worth much, and don’t be the person whom future collectors will curse. Well, now that I’ve stated it, without further ado:
1.Tartars in the Library
To get an overview of the insane stuff that can be found among the trash in rich countries, there is probably no better resource than Garbage Finds. This Montreal-based blogger earns a living from the stuff he finds in his city’s trash cans, with the most interesting pieces being posted online. From the dumpsters, he regularly hauls jewellery, gold and silver items, antiques, valuable art, as well as bags of (still valid) coins and rolls of (still valid) banknotes. There doesn’t seem to be a single item out there that would be too valuable for people to throw into the garbage. And while one could use this as an excuse to sneer at Canadians, there is no particular reason to expect Americans, Germans or Japanese to behave much differently.
Our blogger regularly finds books as well, though only the most impressive items make it into his posts. Perhaps the record-holder here is a book he casually mentions in one of the posts, tucked between a spate of other antiques he found in a single dumpster, among them pre-Columbian pottery and a number of 19th century photographs and art. The author of the post is no book expert, so he guessed that the volume might be from the late 19th century as well, but his commentariat quickly set him straight and explained that the year 1610, printed on the last page, is very likely genuine.
It’s hard to be certain based on the pictures that were included into the post, but it seems that the leather-bound volume found in a Montreal dumpster includes at least two separate works which were bound together not long after being printed. The first is a historical work printed in 1610 and dedicated to the elector John George I of Saxony. Since the title page is missing, so is the title, but the last page says that the book was printed in Leipzig by the printer Henning Grosse Jr.
The second book was printed at the same location in 1611, and this time the title page is present. The book is a German adaptation of the travels of Marco Polo, or Chorographia Tartariae, as the book’s Latin name is spelled. At least one map is present, depicting the island of Rhodes, which definitely increases the value of the book. Of special interest to me, however, is the dedication immediately after the title page. Even though the work was printed in Saxony, it is dedicated to Hans Jakob Khisl and Karl Khisl, two members of a Carniolan noble family that was of paramount importance for Slovenian history.
The Khisls gave their name to Khislstein castle in the centre of Kranj, and they played a major part in the Reformation movement in Slovenia, during which time we got our first printed books. Of interest to book history, they also opened the first Slovenian paper mill at Fužine near Ljubljana in 1579. Next to the former mill, there still stands a castle which used to belong to the Khisls and now houses the Museum of Architecture and Design. I regularly pass by the castle on my strolls down the Ljubljanica River. Fortunately, the castle is too big to fit into a dumpster.
The reason why the book was dedicated to the Khisls is that the translator got to know them well during his career. Hieronymus Megiser was born in Swabia and studied at Tübingen, but he spent a big part of his life in Carniola and Carinthia, where he became well acquainted with the Slovenian language. He put this knowledge to good use and brought out the first Slovenian dictionary of all time – more precisely, a huge German-Latin-Slovenian-Italian dictionary – in 1592. Apart from Slavic cultures, he was also interested in lands further east, which led him to compile the first ever Turkish grammar in German. It’s thus no surprise that he was also the first person to translate Marco Polo into German – in the 1611 volume that ultimately ended up in a dumpster.
In the end, our blogger sold the book to a friend-of-the-blog for 30 dollars, which is a very modest sum even considering the missing pages. However, the whole point of my writing is that when looking at old books, one shouldn’t focus on their monetary worth. Hence, if the book arrived into good hands, then the founder of Garbage Finds did the right thing. I checked online and there doesn’t seem to be a copy of this edition of Marco Polo in any Slovenian library, despite the Megiser-Khisl connection. I know that our National Library looks out for interesting Slovenian books being offered by foreign booksellers, and occasionally buys them for its collection. Maybe it would be a better idea to establish relations with foreign dumpster divers and buy interesting books from them. A lot more could be acquired that way, and for much less money, too.
This particular example bothers me even more than all the others below, and the reason isn’t just the book’s historical importance or its Slovenian connection. I guess the main reason is that (ironically?) I’m kind of thinking like a librarian. Preserving old books isn’t a passive process that just happens, you need to actively make it happen by safeguarding the books from damp and insects and dirt and little children, year after year after year… When you look at a book that’s 400 years old, what you’re looking at is the effort of over a dozen generations to preserve the book against an onslaught of calamities that could easily turn a volume into dust in a matter of days. That alone should give every booklover pause when handling a truly old item. But at the end of all these centuries, some idiot had to come along and chuck the book into the trash. If you’re reading this, f**k you.
2.1812 All Over Again
There are two factors which make the following story unique: 1) the absurd importance of the salvaged books and 2) the fact that one of the first places where it was announced was Reddit. Just like electronic media have slowly supplanted printed ones as the primary means of record-keeping of our age, they are in turn being replaced by social media platforms such as Twitter and Reddit. Perhaps 22nd century historians will have special citation styles for Tweets and Facebook posts, just like we now have special styles for journal articles and conference abstracts.
Back to the story. It doesn’t say whether Max Brown often dumpster-dives for antiques, but at least on one occasion in 2014, he was distracted by a bunch of old cassettes lying inside a dumpster near his California home. Thank God for those cassettes – under them turned out to lie a bunch of old books. Brown pulled out a handful of these, but then, according to the story, it started to rain, so he packed up what he could – 15 books altogether – and headed home.
Once he was home, he took a better look at these books and found out that they were in fact really old, dating to the 18th century and even earlier. What especially caught his attention, though, was an inscription in one of the books, “From the Library of Thomas Jefferson.” I don’t know what went through his head at that moment, but my guess is that it was a feeling not unlike drunkenness. Each collector dreams of such moments, and Brown, if not perhaps a collector, found his.
He contacted antiquarian booksellers, who at first told him that the inscriptions connecting the books to Jefferson were not authentic. Not entirely convinced, Brown did some additional research of his own, tracing down the owners of Jefferson’s books after the death of their famous owner. Jefferson, an inveterate collector of books from an early age, had offered his library to the US Congress after the original Library of Congress was burned down during the War of 1812. After some wrangling and debate, Jefferson’s offer was accepted. However, after the transaction was finalized and the books were transferred in 1815, Jefferson’s collecting did not grind to a halt, so he continued to acquire new books for himself until his death in 1826.
This second library of Thomas Jefferson was dispersed after his death. Brown checked out the 19th century sales catalogues of Jefferson’s books and found the same titles that he had recovered from the dumpster. He sought a second opinion about the books’ provenance, and this time, he was told that the inscriptions were genuine. In the meantime, however, Brown had been strapped for cash, so he sold most of the books for 8,000 dollars; not a small sum, but probably only a fraction of what the books would have fetched at a major auction.
The story, as Brown and the journalists who interviewed him eventually pieced it together, is as follows: one part of Jefferson’s library ended up in the possession of the Kellogg family soon after Jefferson’s death. The ownership of these books can then ultimately be traced down to a descendant of the family by the name of Violet Cherry, who died in 1976. After that, the trail officially goes cold, but it seems that Brown also figured out who the subsequent owners were. Unfortunately, he isn’t sharing names. All he divulges is that they are themselves descendants of Ms Cherry, that they threw the books away during a remodelling in 2014, and that, extremely ironically, they are historians by profession. I hope he changes his mind and makes their names public one day. The very least these people deserve is a proper public shaming.
As the story is presented online, it still leaves a few unanswered questions. How is it possible to have such a priceless book collection at home and not know it? If I had Thomas Jefferson’s books in my collection, there’s no way my kids, or anyone else I know for that matter, would be able to not be aware of this. The descendants of Ms Cherry might have hated books, but it’s really hard to imagine that someone would prefer to throw these books away than to exchange them for a Mercedes.
Also, how many books did Brown leave behind him in the dumpster? It’s possible that the other books inside were not from Jefferson’s library (he also salvaged some old photograph albums of the Kelloggs), but it’s also possible that the story is ultimately a very tragic one. I can’t really understand how one could find such beautiful books and then be put off from rescuing them by the rain (even if one didn’t yet know whom exactly these 18th century volumes belonged to), but let’s give Brown a break here. I’m sure he has had enough moments of remorse as it is, and the next time he comes across a pile of discarded old books, he’ll know what to do.
Perhaps the saddest part is that the story was only reported by a handful of regional media. If these same books were stolen from a library or an auction house, I’m sure that the story would hit the headlines the next morning, and scores of policemen would be assigned to the case. When reporting about major book thefts, journalists often stress that the perpetrators had assaulted our common cultural heritage, and should consequently be given be given exemplary, harsh punishments. But when books of equal value are literally destroyed, nothing happens. Whoever threw these into the trash does not need to fear any sanctions.
3.What does Montaigne know?
Most stories about amazing garbage finds never become public, so the only way to come across them is by word of mouth. I can only guess at what the most valuable thing is that anyone ever found in the trash. We know about this present story only because the finder told it to his friend, a blogger, who in turn wrote a post about it, titled “What Can Be Found in the New York Trash.”
Both the blogger and his friend are Russians living in New York. One day, the friend was going from his house to the store and passed by a large open dumpster which was evidently filled with the contents of someone’s apartment, covered with a layer of snow. There was plenty of furniture and clothes, but also a lot of books, many of them quite old. The passer-by filled a box with books and other items that grabbed his attention, and once he was home, he had a better look at them.
One of the books was an edition of Montaigne’s Essays, printed in 1957 and illustrated by the “great American artist” Salvador Dali. What’s more, the book was a bibliophile edition, produced in 1000 numbered copies that were signed by the illustrator. Even though the outside of the book was scratched, presumably a consequence of having lain in the dumpster, the inside seemed to be very well preserved. When copies of the same edition reach the market, they tend to sell for 1000-2000 dollars, though this one might fetch a bit less due to its imperfect condition.
Our blogger heard about the amazing find from his friend that same day, and rushed to the dumpster to see for himself what lay inside. He took a number of photos, in which we can see the gigantic dumpster in question, about as long as two of the cars parked next to it. The blogger also took plenty of photos of the finds that he himself brought home, which included paintings, vintage clothes, different paper ephemera, as well as a number of books. He didn’t find anything as valuable as Montaigne’s Essays, but he did salvage several well-preserved turn-of-the-century children’s books. It’s unlikely that our blogger, or anyone else for that matter, managed to get to the bottom of the dumpster and inspect all of its contents. Hence, it’s hard to say whether Dali’s book was indeed the most valuable object to have lain inside.
For the first two stories I presented above, we don’t know what the dumpsters in question looked like, or how many people passed by them. In this case, however, we can see clearly from the photos that the dumpster was located at the side of a main street, that plenty of cars and people passed by, and that any pedestrian could see that the container was filled with books. Judging by the layer of snow on top of the books, it also seems that they were left standing inside for quite some time. If a few random people throw valuable books into the trash, this can be shrugged off as an aberration, but when hundreds of passers-by do nothing about it, then that is worrisome. If it weren’t for two Russian immigrants, nothing would remain of the cultural heritage packed within this NY dumpster.
4.Accio Rare Book!
The previous three stories suggest that if a book is old(ish), it might also be valuable. This is not a necessary condition, though, and dumpsters can also yield valuable books of a more recent date. In this last story, a book that would at first glance appear to be the most common item in the world turned out to be as rare and as precious as very few other bibliophile gems. The story also illustrates that it’s not just dumpsters in front of mansions that one should be attentive to.
The book in question is a first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which came out in 1997 in a tiny print run of 500 copies, around 300 of which were bought up by libraries. Given what a success Harry Potter became afterwards, this is probably the most sought-after modern first edition of all, with even tattered library copies fetching significant sums. It’s great that libraries support fledgling young authors by buying up their books, but it would be even better if these books weren’t ultimately trashed.
This one was thrown out, along with a few other (less rare) Harry Potter first editions, by a school in Buckinghamshire, which unfortunately remains unnamed, in 2008. The occasion for the trashing was an incoming visit by Ofsted, the school-inspection body of the UK Department of Education. Apparently, the school wanted its library to look pristine for the inspection, and plenty of other items had found themselves in the dumpster. If Ofsted has a policy that libraries aren’t allowed to carry rare and valuable books, then I hope the inspectors never find their way to Oxbridge colleges…
The Harry Potter books were taken by a then-teacher at the school, who apparently had to fish them out of the dumpster. Sometimes libraries will at least offer these sort of discarded books to employees before trashing them, but apparently this institution has an uncompromising policy of destruction. As it happens, the teacher brought all of these books home, but at first didn’t consider that they might have any particular value – she simply wanted to have them around for her children and grandchildren to read.
About eight years later, her son noticed that the books, especially the first edition of Philosopher’s Stone, might indeed be valuable. He offered them around to antiquarian sellers, who offered to buy the books on the spot for several thousand pounds, but he figured that the books’ real value might indeed be much higher, and resisted the temptation. Finally, he contacted the Hansons’ Auctioneers auction house, where Philosopher’s Stone went up for auction in 2020 and reached the sum of £33,000, despite being an ex-library copy with significant damage to the spine.
The saddest part of this particular story is probably that when the unnamed teacher was interviewed about her finds, she sounded almost apologetic for having rescued the books from the trash. She explained to the journalist that “it just seemed awful to throw them away” and that taking them home for her grandchildren was “better than seeing them go to waste.” Perhaps the biggest problem, when it comes to books in the trash, is that people are so squeamish about dumpster diving. Even the few who salvage books from trash bags often later feel the need to ask forgiveness for their good deeds.
When Rebecca Rego Barry wrote her Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places, she included 52 stories into the volume, gathered from fellow collectors and book dealers whom she had gotten to know over the years. Of all these stories, however, only one involves a book that was literally found in the trash. Even then, the book in question, a rare 1920s driving manual for New Yorkers, is not quite as “fantastic” as many of the other highlighted finds.
I was rather surprised by this omission, and I would like to use the opportunity here to publicly invite Ms Barry to focus a future volume entirely on books found and rescued from the trash. I’m certain that there are many stories similar to the four above that haven’t yet been published anywhere, in print or online. Admittedly, most antiquarian dealers are probably too haughty to sift through the trash themselves, but I’m sure each of them has now and then acquired a rare book that, according to the seller, had come from a dumpster. If such a collection of stories helped motivate some of its readers to take up dumpster diving, then that would be the biggest service to book collecting I can think of.
At the end of all this, the reader might ask whether I also have any similar stories of dumpster finds of my own. I definitely do, and at least one of them can compete with the four I have selected for the present post. However, I’ll probably use these stories for blog posts of their own – and I can’t post everything at once. Stay tuned!
There are two kinds of bookstores in the world: regular ones, and second-hand bookstores. Each of these has its own aesthetic, its own special smell, its own type of bookseller, and, to a large extent, its own clientele. When you are searching for a book, you will easily know which of the two kinds of bookstore to visit. If the book came out in the last 5-10 years or so, you will go to a regular bookstore; otherwise, it’ll be the second-hand one. There are some businesses that dabble in both, especially if they combine second-hand books with remaindered ones, but these stores are rare enough for the binary division to remain valid. After a certain period of time, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, a book will not be sold by regular bookstores anymore. This was not always so.
In this particular case, an obscure and seemingly unrelated legal decision is to blame for massive changes that occurred in the bookselling world. In Thor Power Tool Co. v. Commissioner in 1979, the US Supreme Court ruled that a business is only allowed to depreciate its inventory for tax purposes if it proceeds to actually offer the goods for a reduced price. In more accessible English, this means that if a publisher continues to sell a book at the initial price, they must also pay a correspondingly high tax for each year that they keep the book in storage.
Previously, the publishers had been able to reduce the accounting value of unsold books, and hence the tax they paid, every year, simply due to the fact that with each subsequent year, the remaining books in storage were less likely to sell. After 1979, all this changed and it suddenly became unprofitable to store books for more than a couple of years after they were published. Huge amounts of books suddenly found themselves remaindered, or more likely, pulped, soon after release. Knowingly or not, the US Supreme Court thus managed to destroy more books than did many of the great tyrants of history.
Of course, the world isn’t just America. However, the Justices’ decision affected every bookseller who imported books from the USA and who would suddenly find the previous decade’s titles unprocurable. More importantly, other countries passed similar regulations over the years, increasing the taxes that publishers had to pay for unsold stock. During the course of the 20th century, it thus became increasingly less common to find old books still in stock with the publisher.
The Guinness Book of Records includes the record for “slowest-selling book”, which is currently held by the 1716 translation of the New Testament from Coptic into Latin by David Wilkins, published by the Oxford University Press. The book remained in stock for 191 years, with the last copy eventually being sold in 1907. It is easy to understand why this particular record hasn’t been broken in over a century. By the time the daring publisher were finally presented with a Guinness Record certificate for their slow-selling book title, the publisher in question would have paid dozens of times the retail value of the books just in taxes.
Fortunately, some countries are friendlier towards publishers. However, even when taxes on unsold books are low, storage costs mean that publishers need to pay for each extra year that they keep an old title in stock. As a consequence, you will tend to still find very old titles in stock mostly at government-owned institutions which have their own – free – warehouses. Let’s have a look at some of the oldest titles still in stock with publishers from Slovenia and the nearby area.
The Slovenska Matica publishing house is one of the country’s largest academic publishers and the second oldest publisher in Slovenia – indeed, it’s the oldest one to still occupy the same headquarters, and never to change its name. Fittingly, Slovenska Matica is also known for never letting go of its stock. Apart from new titles, they also regularly offer unsold books from the 1990s, 1980s and 1970s at book fairs at reduced prices. At the time of writing, they still have a special offer of older editions for 2 euros apiece – from this selection, I bought a new copy of Lavo Čermelj’s Between the First and the Second Trieste Tribunal, printed in 1972.
Čermelj’s memoir of the Fascist era devotes considerable attention to the travails of Slovenian-language publishers between both world wars in Italian-occupied western Slovenia. He also describes his personal experience with libricide – he probably holds the Slovenian record for the number of separate occasions on which his books were burned – which means that I’ll probably return to this memoir in one of my coming posts. Slovenian speakers are advised to use the opportunity and check out not just Čermelj, but the entire discounted selection.
A few minutes’ walk from Slovenska Matica is the National Museum of Slovenia, which has also been in the publishing business since the 19th century. The oldest title still in the museum store is a 1957 volume in Serbo-Croatian, discussing a set of medieval remains in modern-day Croatia. While I don’t have a copy of this book myself, I do have a copy of the oldest Slovenian-language book still on offer: Brezje by Karl Kromer, brought out in 1959. To be more precise, the book is a bilingual German-Slovenian edition, a catalogue of Iron Age finds from the Slovenian village of Brezje.
Reading the catalogue has a rather melancholy feeling to it, as none of the finds discussed inside are in Slovenia anymore. The excavations took place before WWI, in Austro-Hungarian times, and even though the excavators were Slovenian, the unearthed items quickly found themselves carted off to Vienna, where they reside to the present day. If we can’t behold the ancient helmets in Ljubljana anymore, we can at least check out their depictions in this book; it continues to be available both at the museum shop and by mail order.
Older still is the stock at the Technical Museum of Slovenia, an amazing institution that is located within the building of a former monastery in the village of Bistra. The museum was founded in 1951 and began publishing books the following year. Most of the early titles are sold out, but the museum shop still has some copies of Idrija’s “Kamšt”, a 1954 booklet by Albert Struna. The booklet is a short guide to the water supply system which was used to provide power for Idrija’s mercury mines; despite its brevity, it remains the most extensive treatment of the subject so far.
Even though the booklet isn’t technically for sale anymore, I’m including it in the list, as the museum shop still has a few copies set aside for researchers who can’t find the book anywhere else. Unfortunately, they’ve run out entirely of their beautiful 1956 book Vigenjc, illustrating the history of nail production in NW Slovenia. However, I managed to get myself a copy during a visit some years ago, a mere 50 years after the book’s publication.
Slovenians might not like this very much, but this time it’s the Croatian publishers who take the cake. The winner is the Archaeological Museum in Zagreb, which still has copies of its 1945 book The Fortress Vučedol in stock. This book itself suffices for a story of its own, albeit more of an archaeological than a bibliophile story. The book discusses the Vučedol culture, which is nowadays recognized as one of the major Copper Age cultures in the Balkans, with some viewing it as an early Indo-European society.
The remains at Vučedol village were first excavated in the late 1930s by a team of German and Yugoslav archaeologists, which of course produced tensions concerning the distribution of the finds. After the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941, Himmler stepped in and demanded that the most impressive finds, including the famous “Vučedol dove,” be located, packed up, and sent to Germany. Interestingly, the local Croatian fascists managed to get Himmler to change his mind – being the only other country in Europe with its own death camps for Jews, Croatia was a very valuable ally. The local authorities instead mustered funding for a German-language monograph about the investigations at Vučedol, and brought the book out just before liberation in 1945.
Die Burg Vučedol, as the book is titled, is still for sale 75 years after its publication. The price is a relatively hefty 200 HRK, which is about 30 euros. This is a bit much for me, given that the book wouldn’t really be a key element of my collection, but I don’t despair. Sometime in the next 50 years, the museum is bound to have a sale and offer the book for a reduced price – and then I’ll snatch it!
I’m a bit indecisive about what the take-home message of today’s post should be. On one hand, I appreciate that the above publishers have kept their books in stock for 50 years and more, and never succumbed to the temptation of emptying their warehouses to make room for new merchandise. Hence, I am rewarding them with the free promotion above. On the other hand, I don’t really want to see all the books that I just mentioned become suddenly sold out. If you’re reading this, and are thinking of buying one of the above-mentioned books, go ahead, but please make sure that it’s not the last copy in stock. If we all exercise some restraint and refrain from buying the last available copies of these books, then maybe, just maybe, one of these Slovenian/Croatian publishers might eventually manage to break David Wilkins’ 191-year record.
Today’s post is technically a book review, but I’ll be honest and admit right away that I did not read the entire volume in question. The title of the book is A Gendarme among Flowers and Books (Žandar med cvetjem in knjigami), and it’s a loosely organised memoir of Vid Ambrožič, a little-known figure who is usually remembered today as a poet and a “village chronicler.” Well, he also deserves to be remembered as a pretty impressive book collector. I don’t think there has ever been a Slovenian who would remain principally remembered as a book collector, and so it was also with Ambožič. For him, books were never more than a hobby, but it was a hobby that he took seriously and acquired an enviable collection under very difficult circumstances.
His memoirs are written in a light, chatty tone without any pretensions to serious literature, and the book’s cover art leaves much to be desired. However, the stories he has to tell are unexpectedly entertaining. He casts light not only on book collecting in the interwar era, but also on the general fate of books in Slovenia during the first half of the 20th century. Slovenian-speaking booklovers are highly advised to give Ambrožič’s memoir a try; for everyone else, at least there is this blog post.
To the extent that the book has a central theme, it’s Ambrožič’s recollections of serving as a gendarme in interwar Yugoslavia. While he keeps returning to this theme, he never stays put for more than a few pages, and keeps wandering off again to discuss local history, interesting villagers, his amorous adventures, and his interests as a collector. Obviously this last bit was most interesting to me, so I ended up skimming through some of the other passages. Then again, for the standards of book collectors, our protagonist had a fairly interesting life.
He served in the Austro-Hungarian army during WWI, and was present at the famous Judenburg uprising in 1918, which he somehow managed to survive. After the war, he became a gendarme in the area east and north of Ljubljana, and the pages are filled with stories of rapists, murderers, and shootouts between criminals and the police. Ambrožič narrates the hunts for his “birds” with remarkable coolness, making it sound almost as if it were a game. During WWII, the Germans fortunately retired him, but he stayed around for a while in order to be able to mediate between the occupiers, locals, and the resistance, and occasionally try to save people listed for execution. He was under suspicion as a potential communist before the war; after the war, he would get in trouble for his opposition to communism. It was a difficult life, but his various collecting hobbies would help keep him afloat.
Nowadays, when most people attend university, it’s hard to understand how someone could be as talented as Ambrožič and yet never advance beyond primary education. He learned to read early, and would beg around for money to buy books before he even entered school. Once he was there, he started his own handwritten newspaper (with two subscribers), wrote down poems on the barn walls, and took out books in German with him when he went to graze cows. He became the informal parish librarian, and when the priest was transferred to another parish, he left Ambrožič in charge. The library would later disappear during WWII, along with many others, while Ambrožič’s literary work was soon thrown into the cesspit by his adoptive father. In return, the son would pinch coins from the father’s purse, and when enough money was gathered, he bought a new book of Fran Levstik’s poems which was being advertised in the newspapers. Thus collectors are made.
When time came to send the prodigy off to high school, nobody made any moves, so he stayed behind. Instead, he was sent off to WWI, earned a medal for bravery, and started a career in the police upon his return. Soon after the war, his collecting career also began in earnest. A national exhibition was held in Ljubljana, with a cultural section that included a first edition of the national poet Prešeren’s poems (held today by the Slavic Library in Ljubljana). The edition had been inscribed by Prešeren to his boss’s daughter, and from later times, it bore the ownership markings of the poet Anton Aškerc. Ambrožič, by then already employed as a gendarme, felt the very unseemly urge to grab the book and run. He conquered the urge with the help of a muscular guard, but at that moment he decided to assemble a collection of signed editions and manuscripts himself.
Most book collectors don’t wear a police uniform when they go around collecting signatures. Ambrožič must have scared quite a few famous writers when he appeared at their doors, but at least they didn’t dare ignore him. When he explained what he came for, they were usually relieved and he quickly got his books inscribed. The poet Oton Župančič used to occasion to tease his son: “if you don’t behave, the gendarme will come back and take you with him!” Ambrožič corresponded with several other more distantly located writers, and duly included their letters into his collection. When the writers in question were already dead, it was more difficult; in some cases he coaxed their manuscript from a surviving relative or friend, in some cases he traded with fellow collectors (for example, for stamps, his other collecting passion). Over time, his manuscript collection grew to include almost every major Slovenian writer of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Ambrožič was lucky to have another avenue for book acquisitions. One of his two police stations was in Vevče, and the other was near Količevo, which Slovenians may recognize as the locations of two of the country’s paper mills. The gendarme spent his lunch breaks at the mills, sifting through piles of waste paper for interesting stamps, old documents, but mostly for books and manuscripts. He mentions how he came across the library of Krumperk castle, an imposing Renaissance building northeast of Ljubljana. One day, a row of carts arrived at Količevo mill, carrying books from the castle. The last member of the resident noble family had died, after which the estate liquidators sold the library for scrap. Ambrožič managed to save some especially valuable books, though many were already damaged, having been loaded and unloaded with pitchforks… He laments that since the books are in German, which nobody reads anymore, they won’t outlive him for long. I wonder whether he was proven wrong, and where the books are now.
Another way to merge work and leisure was to snoop around for books during patrols. Whoever has read William Blades’ The Enemies of Books can draw a number of parallels between Blades’ experiences in England and those of Ambrožič in Slovenia, many of which fall into the category “ignorant owners.” Fortunately, the patrolman frequently visited people in their homes and thus got a chance to save mistreated old volumes for a tiny price. One time, he saw a group of kids playing around with an old book, which turned out to be a first edition of Bishop Slomšek’s 1842 classic Blaže and Nežica at Sunday School, a highly desired collectors’ item. They let him have the book, since it wasn’t in “our letters” (it was printed in the archaic bohoričica script). Another prized Slomšek first edition, Christian Virginity, was found in the attic of a farmer who didn’t seem to be very interested in virginity.
In general, villagers of the patrolman’s native Lower Carniola (Dolenjska) are particularly singled out for their lack of respect for books and education. While many were subscribers of the phenomenally successful Hermagoras Society publishing house, the books themselves were treated badly. When Ambrožič searched for old volumes that his collection was missing, he found plenty of copies, but very few in anything resembling good condition. Writing 90 years later, I can only agree. At its heyday, something like 10% (!) of Slovenians were Hermagoras Society subscribers, but you’d never guess that when searching around for these books.
Not all ways to acquire books are desired by the collectors. When Yugoslavia was occupied in 1941 and divided between Italy, Hungary, and Germany, the largest sustained assault on Slovenian culture in history took place in the German-occupied zone. Hundreds of libraries were purged of Slovenian books, especially in Styria and Carinthia, where the Nazis did not recognize Slovenians as legitimate inhabitants. At first, these books were piled into bonfires, but soon afterwards economic considerations made the Nazis prefer recycling. One day, the paper mill in Količevo received a large shipment of bales of waste paper. One of them broke open during unloading and it turned out that under the genuine trash lay books from Styrian libraries. This time, the paper mill workers showed themselves as friends of the book. Risking arrest, they opened up all the bales, and together with Ambrožič, they saved what they could, including a number of rare volumes.
Of course, Količevo itself also lay in the German-occupied zone. Later in 1941, Ambrožič sensed that things were becoming hot, both for himself and his books. At the time you could still travel to the nearby Italian zone, where the attitude towards Slovenian language was much milder. Ambrožič made a number of trips to Ljubljana, each time carrying a few of his most prized possessions in his pockets, and then deposited these books with different friends, to maximize the odds that at least some of the books would survive. Sometime later, the retired gendarme received permission to move to his native Lower Carniola, which was under Italian occupation. On his way, he stopped in Ljubljana, made a round trip to visit all his friends, and assembled the books that he had deposited. Thus he filled a large suitcase, took the train to Lower Carniola, got off at the local station and walked for another hour and a half to his village, with the huge suitcase in hand. Back pain is an affliction known to many bibliophiles.
For the rest of the occupation, Ambrožič would get to observe the horrors of war as a civilian. As mentioned above, Slovenian castles were already under assault before the war, due to the ignorance and neglect of their owners. In 1941, this simmer turned into a firestorm. Castles were, by definition, fortified buildings positioned in strategic locations in the countryside; hence, Germans, Italians and local Quislings began evicting the owners and repurposing the castles into military outposts. Not wanting to idly stand by, the resistance began a campaign of burning down castles and mansions. Sometimes the buildings in question had already been seized by the occupiers, sometimes they were burned down purely as a preventive measure, in case the Nazis might get ideas.
This time, even Ambrožič couldn’t save anything. He mentions Mirna castle near his village, which was burned down in late 1942. Hearing the news, Ambrožič and his adopted son rushed to what remained of the castle, but there was nothing left to save, and all the books and documents held inside the castle were gone. He mentions that some furniture from the castle could later be seen inside nearby peasant huts. The villages were themselves burned down by the Nazis in an offensive in 1943, so even these remnants probably didn’t survive.
Ambrožič wrote down his recollections in the 1960s, when he was an old man and close to death. As it happens, both he and his books managed to survive the war, unlike many other books and people whose stories he narrates. His notes were published posthumously in 1998 by his adopted son Gordan. Incidentally, the latter’s biggest claim to fame is that in 1943, he discovered the body of Lojze Grozde, a young man who was killed by the resistance as a suspected Quisling spy, and who later became the first modern-day Slovenian to be beatified. Grozde was given away when several books published by Catholic Action, a far-right Catholic organization, were found on his body by his interrogators. It wasn’t just people who destroyed books during the war, it could also be the other way around.
Nazi book burnings, the fate of nobles’ libraries during WWII, and the “casual” destruction of books in paper mills during peacetime are all topics I plan to return to in separate blog posts. Ambrožič is a valuable source for all of these since he is never too concerned about what might be relevant to history, but simply writes down memories as they come down to him. A useful lesson from his writings is that acquiring a good collection doesn’t require a lot of money, or indeed hardly any money. On the other hand, it is paramount to be at the right place at the right time. Nowadays, collectors don’t need to hide their books from the Nazis anymore, but treasures can be found at the paper mill just as often as during Ambrožič’s time. You don’t even need to show up in uniform.
Ambrožič, Vid. “Žandar med cvetjem in knjigami.” Kamnik: Gordan Ambrožič, 1998.