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.
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!
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.
When the Iron Curtain came down in 1989 and communist regimes started falling all over Eastern Europe, one of the targets of people’s anger at communism were books and libraries. The fate of books in post-communist Europe is a large topic and definitely deserves more than one blog post, so in this one I’ll focus on East Germany. For now, let’s just say that communist-era books had it rough pretty much everywhere after the regimes that printed them went down.
1. The Land of Reading
Publishing in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was a combination of high intellectual standards, government meddling, and technological limitations. As a result of shortages, it is not uncommon to see relatively prestigious books printed on surprisingly low-quality paper, and in some cases the industry resorted to wartime solutions for decades after 1945. An example is a cheap type of paper that was common in Germany during WWII but remained in use in the GDR at least until the 1970s – one side of the paper would yellow much more quickly than the other, so that when you read these books today, one pair of pages is always white and the next pair yellow, and so on, which is quite a strain on the eyes.
Unsurprisingly, books were also a major channel for propagating official ideology. Apart from highly technical publications, most books had a Marxist tint; however, once the editors had paid their lip service to Marxism in the introduction, the remainder of the text was usually of high quality. I recently came across an essay by the New Yorker columnist Richard Brody in which he discusses the lure of book collecting. One of the bibliophile mementoes he singled out was “from my 1983 visit to East Berlin, where I changed more money than was required for entry in order to purchase several orange clothbound Leipzig Teubner classical editions.” He is referring to the GDR’s clever way to acquire foreign currency: every visitor would have to exchange a minimum amount of money into GDR Marks. To spend this money, two types of commodities were a popular choice among Westerners: cameras and books, especially editions of classics, brought out by publishing houses like Teubner and Reclam.
These same books were of course also much-read in their land of origin. In a country where travel was limited and many luxuries expensive, books served both as a popular pastime and as a substitute for visiting foreign lands in person. The state did its part and supported reading by instituting a very wide net of libraries which were free for everyone. At the same time, books were often the first medium through which sensitive topics like homosexuality, abortion, or envy of the Western lifestyle, were breached and discussed in public. Because the authorities sometimes did an about-face and banned a controversial book after it had already been published, it was common for such books to be grabbed up immediately after release, just in case. A commonly used phrase was that the GDR is a “Leseland”, a “land of reading.”
2. The Cemetery of Unwanted Books
Fast forward to 1993, when the New York Times published a long article about East German literature’s status within the unified country, titled “A Nation of Readers Dumps its Writers.” This summarizes well the radical change that occurred as soon as the Berlin Wall came down. After forty years of being denied bananas, jeans and Volkswagens, East Germans craved for everything Western and tried to shed everything that smacked of communism. Not just political or ideological books, but pretty much the entire domestic production suddenly found itself unsellable. Entire print runs were abandoned by publishers before they had even been sent out to bookstores. In his novel Himmelfarb, which takes place in the early nineties, Michael Krüger’s protagonist is a grumpy old professor who lives on the outskirts of Munich. He comments as he browses through a newly acquired copy of the selected works of Alexander Humboldt:
“[a] beautiful, intelligently edited book, sent to me by the publisher, as the eastern states, which had apparently banned reading after unification with the land of plenty, were either selling it below price or sending it to the paper mill, and in Leipzig of all places.”
Leipzig had been the first major centre of German publishing, and in 1991, it made headlines with another first – probably the world’s first book dump. Initially, unwanted books from the main East German warehouse for literature were sent to paper mills, and when the latter reached capacity, the books were burned as fuel in power stations. At last, whatever remained was transported to a waste deposit site at the town of Espenhain, where on May 1, 1991, a group of students uncovered around 500 tons (!) of books and other printed material deposited under a layer of construction and municipal waste. Among the few organizations to raise their voice in protest was the Union of German Writers, in whose name the poet Dieter Mucke reminded the German public of Heine’s dictum, “where they burn books, they will eventually burn people too.”
Altogether, it is estimated that about three million new books were sent directly to the scrap heaps immediately after reunification, which alone would make this one of the largest single episodes of book destruction in world history. Even more was to come during the 1990s, when the network of public libraries, which had been maintained by the East German state, was mostly dismantled. About 8000 libraries, or more than half of the total, were closed, and most of their books were sent to the dump. It is estimated that around 80 million (!!) books were destroyed in the process. This is such a huge number that I find it hard to really wrap my head around it. Perhaps it’s easier to imagine it as roughly 1600 km of books, enough to fill up a bookshelf stretching from Germany’s southern border to the North Sea – and back again. I have never come across such a huge number in any other episode of book destruction that I ever read of.
3. The Book Pastor
Fortunately, at least a few of these books survived. Among their saviours, pride of place goes to the pastor Martin Weskott from the West German village of Katlenburg, just next to the former border between the two Germanies. Weskott’s life changed in 1991 when a friend showed him a picture in a local newspaper, depicting the “book cemetery” at Plottendorf in Saxony. Weskott was amazed that this could be going on in a civilized country, and since it wasn’t clear from the picture what kind of books were being dumped, he drove down to Saxony with two of his friends to see more precisely what was going on.
Having arrived to Plottendorf, the three friends found a hole in the wire fence and climbed inside the dump. They quickly found themselves standing on enough reading material for several lifetimes. Among the titles dumped, there were the staples of Western culture: world classics such as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, German ones such as Heinrich Mann and Stefan Heym, books by the Latin American revolutionary Eduardo Galeano were lying alongside the King of Prussia Frederick II, the Nobel Prize winner Jaroslaw Seifert, several of the Reclam classics editions, as well as children’s books, maps and books on history and architecture.
Weskott’s next step was to rent out a truck, make a number of return trips to the dump and transport as many of the books as he could back to his parish. He was lucky to have ample space at the parish to store them all, and soon afterwards he founded the Katlenburg Bücherburg, a non-profit where visitors could browse through his rescued books and take them home in exchange for a contribution to charity. After one year, Weskott estimated that he had already saved about 80,000 books, and he had made it a habit to travel down the East German countryside once a month, poking around for discarded and unwanted books.
Eventually, Weskott became known as the Book Pastor, a title which he has carried to the present day. In the nineties, the Bücherburg became a site of literary evenings, pointedly titled “The Garbage Writers are Reading,” where East German writers would present their work to a both cis- and transmural audience. As the destruction of GDR heritage subsided during the nineties, Weskott expanded his focus. He now also gathers Western books, as well as books that pre-and postdate the German division, and foreign books. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to climb around scrap heaps any longer, as most of the books now come directly from libraries, from individuals cleaning their attics, and from publishers’ unsold stock. After almost 30 years and several hundred book-gathering trips, the Bücherburg remains a must-visit for German-speaking bibliomaniacs.
4. A Library in Banana Boxes
Another approach to saving East German printed heritage was taken by Peter Sodann, a politician and actor who became famous for his role in the TV-series Tatort. Like Weskott, Sodann is also an unlikely candidate to fight for preserving the communist past. He spent time in GDR jails himself for counterrevolutionary behaviour, after having staged an irreverent play as a student. Nonetheless, Sodann had been an avid reader his entire life, and in the beginning of the nineties, he had a formative experience similar to that of Weskott. The library in Halle had dumped a huge amount of GDR-produced books soon after reunification, among them Goethe, Thomas Mann and Max Frisch. By the time Sodann heard of this, it was too late to save the books, but he pledged to save others which were about to be disposed of, and to bring them together into a library of his own.
Sodann began a drive to gather East German books, and with the help of around 250 donors, among them libraries, publishers and individuals, he ended up amassing more than half a million books. With intended irony, these were first stored in banana boxes: before 1989, bananas were a rare luxury item. When Western visitors are guided around the library by Sodann today, however, he likes to tease them that by storing Eastern literature in Western cardboard boxes, he is combining the best of both worlds.
It took a long time to find a space to properly house and present the books, since Sodann could offer a library but no money. During two decades of wandering, he had to sell his parents’ home to finance storage costs, part of the book collection became a victim of arson, and the others were endangered by the damp conditions in which they were often stored. Finally, Sodann’s pleas were heard by the mayor of the small town of Stauchitz in Saxony, and in 2011 they struck a deal to open one of the largest private libraries in Europe to the public.
In 2012, the Peter-Sodann-Library was officially opened inside a local mansion. The library includes a small movie theatre and a second-hand store, where duplicates are sold, while still more books are being stored in several warehouses around the country. There is also a nearby hotel which caters to visitors, and a number of buses continue bringing them to Stauchitz. Sodann likes to brag about requests he gets for books: libraries looking for missing copies, academics who need specific editions, publishers who don’t have some of their own books in their archive.
While there are several museums of communism scattered around Eastern Europe, this is the only specialized library I am aware of, and we definitely need more of them. The main excuse why nobody wanted to host Sodann was that all the GDR books were already in the national library in Leipzig, and thus his library was unnecessary. However, there is a difference between a national library and the kind of institution Sodann is building. A national library is a repository of texts, and the texts aren’t really meant to be accessed too often. In Stauchnitz, on the other hand, visitors can roam around the stacks, leaf through the books at will, and buy a few for themselves on the way out. It’s closer to a museum, or even a theme park, and much better equipped to give visitors a wholesome view of literature and culture in the former GDR.
In other Eastern European countries, the downfall of communism was accompanied by public bonfires of books, the torching of entire libraries, or official orders to purge the stacks. By contrast, the East German libricide was both quiet and spontaneous, and left very few traces in the national memory compared to the book burnings of half a century earlier. Nonetheless, it was a major event that deserves a mention in every history of the reunification. Germans tend to be good at learning from their own history; I hope they learn something from this too.
“Bukvarna” is a slightly archaic Slovenian word which could mean either “library”, “bookstore” or “publishing house” at different times. In recent decades it has come to stand for a specific type of non-profit bookstore which is, to my knowledge, a very specific Slovenian phenomenon. A bukvarna is an NGO that gathers unwanted books from the public or discarded books from libraries and then offers them for sale for relatively symbolic prices. Its aim is to preserve books, hence it also accepts and stores less popular books which would be rejected or trashed by regular second-hand bookstores. There are a few bukvarnas currently in operation around the country, including a huge one in Maribor which deserves its own post, but the first one (with a capital B) was the one in Ljubljana.
The story of Bukvarna in Ljubljana is inseparable from the person of Miran Ivan Knez, a larger-than-life figure who set up the book-saving operation and ran it until his death. Knez was a lawyer by profession, but his big passion were books and in 1986, he founded the Slovenian Bibliophile Society (Slovensko bibliofilsko društvo). Although he always spoke in plural, it was clear that the society was his personal project and he ran all the correspondence with the media. I don’t know of any other publicly visible member of the society, though Knez claimed in 1998 that there were around 50 “more active” members, alongside almost 1400 members in total.
Soon after the society’s founding, it opened up their Bukvarna, a brick-and-mortar shop which passed on the books acquired by the society. There was already an advertisement in the Delo newspaper in 1989, inviting booklovers to visit Bukvarna. While I can’t find any information about where the initial stock of books came from, the society got a large publicity boost in November that year. After a major purge in the city’s libraries, about 10 tons of books had been sent to the paper mill, and Knez found about this in time to inform the media and save about 4 tons of the weeded books. Back then, local library policy was first to offer discarded material to other libraries, then to a single nearby second-hand bookstore, and if the store didn’t want to buy the books, these were trashed. Offering them to anyone else was not an option. Fortunately, enough people in Slovenia disagreed with such an uncharitable policy, and the dumped books made it to the front page of Delo, with Bukvarna mentioned in the article.
An exchange of letters to the editor followed, with city librarians defending their policy with the usual empty rhetoric (“we’re the experts, so you should always trust us”), and Knez responding in a baroque style that would remain a trademark of the Bibliophile Society. The final score of these exchanges was 0:0, but enough publicity was generated along the way to give Bukvarna a boost. Before the end of the year, the city council allotted them new headquarters at Emonska vrata (“The Gates of Emona”), at the side of Congress Square in Ljubljana.
The Emonska vrata gallery was an amazing location, but just about the worst place to locate a bookstore. Having previously been used as an exhibition space, it was an underground gallery located within the remains of the northern gate of the ancient Roman town of Emona, the predecessor of Ljubljana. The visitor would descend a small staircase into a narrow courtyard about 3 metres below ground level, which was divided in half by a well-preserved section of the wall. After climbing through an opening in the wall into the second part of the courtyard, one faced a large lattice window. In front of the window, there was a line of boxes filled with free books, and next to them, a door which opened into Bukvarna.
While all of this might sound like a cool place for a lapidarium or a medieval-themed pub, it meant a very damp environment for the books, as well as little natural light for their buyers. The constant hum of ventilation was mixed with an occasional shaking of the ceiling as a bus drove down Slovenska cesta, the main city street which was just above Bukvarna. In addition, since the layout of the space was governed by archaeological constraints, Bukvarna was divided into two halves. Connecting them was a very narrow corridor not more than a meter wide which probably limited access to many an obese visitor, let alone the unfortunate booklovers on wheelchairs. Never once during my visits to Bukvarna did I find myself in this second area with another person, and many visitors probably never even realized that there were more books at the end of this dusky passageway. As a result, the books piled up much more quickly than they were sold, and several of them eventually got damaged by the damp.
I assume that Emonska vrata was simply the only large-enough location that was available to the Bibliophile Society at the time, and this outweighed all other considerations. Indeed, Knez would later fight newspaper wars against archaeologists who wanted to use the space for exhibitions once again. The Bibliophile Society also embraced its new connection with antiquity during their brief venture into publishing in the nineties. One of the books they brought out was a translation of Emona, a work of revisionist history by the 19th century archaeologist Alfons Müllner. Inside, the author claims that the real Roman town of Emona was located to the south of Ljubljana around present-day Ig, whereas the ruins beneath Ljubljana belong to another town whose name was lost to history. Knez always enjoyed playing the contrarian in everything he did, but if he actually believed in Müllner’s thesis, this would mean his own bookstore would also have to change its name – “The Unnamed Gates?”
In 1990, the Slovenian Bibliophile Society launched a campaign which to my knowledge has no parallel anywhere else in the world. To the Slovenian national assembly, which was then still a regional organ within the Yugoslav federation, they proposed a law which would prohibit the destruction of books. Unfortunately, no draft of the proposed law remains publicly available anywhere. All I know is that despite its utopian nature, the law wasn’t dismissed out of hand, and it was actually given a pretty decent hearing.
After an initial rejection in 1990, the proposal was debated again in 1992 at the Committee for Culture within the national assembly of the newly independent Slovenia. The committee ordered the Ministry of Culture to “find a solution to the question of protecting books, based on the principle that books are objects of cultural heritage,” which was pretty close to the Bibliophile Society’s own position. In 1993, this same committee passed a resolution agreeing that books “should be protected against destruction to the greatest possible extent,” and again charged the Ministry of Culture to update the law accordingly.
Later in 1993, the ministry finally produced a response in which they officially recommended that libraries and waste paper companies refrain from pulping books. Instead, books should be donated to organisations willing to take them, for example to the Slovenian Bibliophile Society. However, the ministry rejected a ban on book destruction, as this would infringe on private property. The Bibliophile Society expressed disagreement with this lukewarm response, but pledged to continue its struggle against libricide.
An absolute ban on destroying books probably wouldn’t be feasible, even from my perspective as a booklover, and even if it only applied to libraries and other state-owned institutions. However, there are definitely way too many books pulped daily around the world – and there aren’t many organisations out there that would raise a voice against this as much as the old Slovenian Bibliophile Society did. Just about anywhere else in the world, the idea of banning book destruction would probably have you laughed out of any government institution. It speaks well for Slovenian culture that the proposal was taken at least somewhat seriously.
(If any readers know of any similar initiatives to legally curtail destruction of books, please contact me. I’d love to write about this in the blog.)
By the time I first visited Bukvarna in the early 2000s, it had become a fixture of Ljubljana bookselling. Entering through the door, you were greeted by Knez himself, sitting behind a huge book-covered table, with a collection of busts of famous Slovenians on the shelf above. Just as he was in writing, he was long-winded and florid in his speech, and would assault you with a lecture about all the important functions performed by the Bibliophile Society, and about the benefits of membership. Your best bet was to bring a friend who would bear the brunt of the attack, while you quietly slid away to inspect the shelves.
I don’t think Knez was much of a Marxist, but Bukvarna had a very communist feel to it, with a number of slogans in red paint that lined the walls. “Every unread book is a new book” and “Books are our greatest treasure” would motivate you to be greedy while you rummaged through the stacks and slowly receded into the murky interior. Bukvarna had a policy of paying by weight, so it was smart to focus on paperbacks and pocket editions, and I’m not sure if Knez ever managed to sell an encyclopaedia set. All the while, you were accompanied by the radio playing loud Slovenian folk music, which is just about as far as you can get from the kind of music usually played in bookstores. Having returned to your friend, who was still bogged down in conversation, you then paid whatever small fee the scales indicated, and as you exited ancient Emona’s northern gate, it was hard not to think that there isn’t a bookstore like this anywhere on Earth.
During the 2000s, the Slovenian Bibliophile Society acquired a small website (unfortunately long since taken down) and a few more mentions in the media, but to my knowledge it didn’t get engulfed in any more newspaper battles against libraries. Part of the reason were changing library practices, since public libraries in the Ljubljana region finally took the hint and started donating books instead of trashing them. The weirdest thing that happened during the decade was a burglary in 2005, when an unknown thief broke into the store at night and left with several hundred kilos of mostly unexceptional books, including a selection of Karl May’s adventure novels. Perhaps a librarian wanted revenge for having been called out in the media? Whoever the book-loving thief was, he never struck again.
There had long been plans to revitalize Congress Square, which was being used as a parking lot in the 2000s, but they were suddenly accelerated in 2006 when Zoran Janković became the new mayor of Ljubljana. Janković campaigned with the promise to close the city centre for traffic, which included removing parking areas from the main squares and redirecting the cars into newly-built garages. This was overall a great idea and would contribute to the Ljubljana tourist boom in the 2010s, but for Bukvarna it spelt the beginning of the end. One of the entrances to the planned garage under Congress Square would be located right next to the entrance of Bukvarna. Even though the area of the bookstore itself would not be included in the garage, the planners proposed that Bukvarna should go.
I last visited Bukvarna in 2009. Whatever the negotiations between the Slovenian Bibliophile Society and the city council looked like, they took a heavy toll on Knez, who had become a cartoonish portrait of a grumpy old miser. Usually I had spent an hour or two inside the store, but this time I was almost chased out after 15 minutes, and after having paid the price of a new edition for a very mediocre second-hand book. Bukvarna was obviously in a bad shape, and you could guess that it wouldn’t last much longer. After the reception I got, I never visited again.
I’m unsure how exactly the Bukvarna in Ljubljana came to an end, but apparently the city council got fed up with Knez’s refusal to move the books, and sometime in 2010 or perhaps 2011 they simply barred the entrance to the store. Had the city offered an alternative location, and was Knez just too stubborn to play by someone else’s rules? Or was he indeed fighting for the very existence of Bukvarna? Whatever the answer was, losing the store was a heavy blow for Knez, and he died in the end of 2011. Since he never really had a successor, this also meant the end of the Slovenian Bibliophile Society, which was officially disbanded and deleted from the registry of societies in the following years.
There must have been at least 100,000 books inside Bukvarna, and I have no idea what happened to them. Hopefully they were given over to one of the local second-hand bookstores, or saved from destruction in some other way1. All I know is that they are not inside the former Bukvarna anymore. In 2016, the dilapidated space was finally given over to archaeologists who are working on a new exhibition about Ljubljana’s ancient past. No trace remains of the bookshelves today, but both the exhibition area and the entrance to the garage have kept the name Bukvarna, as the only reminder of the book paradise that used to exist beneath Slovenska cesta.
For a decade now, Ljubljana has been without its own bukvarna. In a twist of fate, a part of its responsibilities has been taken over by the city library. Nowadays, the library accepts any and all donations, includes a small number of the books into its own collection, and donates the rest to the public during special giveaway days a few times per year. Nonetheless, the Slovenian Bibliophile Society will be missed. Miran Ivan Knez was an inveterate campaigner for the preservation of books, and the world needs more people like him. His story deserves to be more widely known outside of Slovenian borders as well.
Bratož, Igor: “Knjižni azil za bibliofobni čas.” Delo, 19. 3. 1998.
Hainz, Damjana: “Knjige na odpadu.” Delo, 22. 11. 1989.
Kaučič, Mojca: “Na stotine knjig komaj rešili pred uničenjem.” Delo, 21. 11. 1989.
1A friendly reader wrote to me about the eventual fate of Bukvarna’s books. Sometime around 2015, they were sold to the bookselling magnate Dušan Cunjak. However, Cunjak seems to have inherited both Knez’s modus operandi and his bad luck. A few years later, after he had failed to comply with several eviction notices, one of his warehouses was torn down with part of the books still inside. The owner of the warehouse, who had ordered Cunjak’s eviction, was the municipality of Ljubljana.
I didn’t expect I would like The Book Thieves so much. I can’t resist books about books, especially if they’re about World War II, but most of the time they present their content in a very dry, academic way (something that I hope my blog is avoiding). By contrast, Rydell blends together history, travelogue, interview and pure bibliophilia into a mixture that keeps you hooked until the end. However, from the beginning, he is faced with a major problem. We are used to thinking of Nazis as destroyers of books, starting with the bonfires of 1933 and culminating in the destruction of several major European libraries, such as the one in Louvain and most of the great libraries of Warsaw. If instead of this one talks about how Nazis stole books for their own collections, wouldn’t that improve the image that most of us already have of them, and appear as a sort of vindication?
Rydell’s answer to this is somewhat disingenuous. Destroying books might be bad, he contends, but using them against their writers and owners is even worse. Of course, he has a point here. In many cases when the Nazis stole books from groups they hated, such as Jews, Slavs and freemasons, the purpose was to create special research libraries; foremost among these was the string of organizations led by chief Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, such as the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce) and the Hohe Schule der NSDAP (Advanced School of the NSDAP). Such institutions would serve as an ideological weapon, allowing Germans to know their enemy in order to fight him all the more efficiently. Especially in the case of Jews, these libraries would also serve as a sort of retroactive justification of the Holocaust. After all the Jews would be gone, their books would continue to serve as evidence to future generations of the need for exterminating Jewry, or so at least the Nazis thought. Indeed, when ransacking libraries in occupied countries, a central preoccupation was finding “evidence” for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. For example, when a special commissioner was sent to the library of the masonic lodge in Amsterdam, he was instructed to pay special attention to any documents indicating Jewish influence on the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and on the creation of the British secret service, events that Nazi ideologues considered part of the Jewish plot for world domination.
At the same time, isn’t gathering books in order to refute them what most intellectuals do, most of the time? If you want to understand a topic, you need to familiarize yourself with all the viewpoints on it, including the ones you oppose. I’m reminded of Umberto Eco who commented that reading and collecting books which contain the truth is boring, the interesting books are the ones which are full of falsehoods… It wouldn’t harm Rydell’s narrative to simply admit that while burning books is even worse, stealing them is still bad, especially if you kill their owners in the process. Most of the books stolen by the Nazis weren’t really connected with ideology, they were just regular book collections which were taken from owners as the latter were sent to the camps. These books were then sold or turned over to local libraries, where a number of them still are, and in many cases the profits were specifically earmarked to fund the Holocaust. The number of books collected in this way was even advertised publicly as a measure of the Nazis’ respect for popular education, as described in another book, Hitler’s Beneficiaries by Götz Aly.
The project of returning these books is probably the most interesting of all the stories Rydell presents, and I’m really impressed by the effort German libraries have invested in identifying stolen books, photographing them and setting up databases with thousands of indexed items. (Searching for a stolen book yourself? You can check the database here.) Of all the stories presented, this one is also the most uplifting, as we encounter Holocaust survivors and their descendants around the world who are improbably reunited with their books after many decades of separation.
The other stories are gradually less cheerful. Many of the trails of lost libraries lead to Russia, and most of these trails reach a dead end. During and after the war, the Red Army confiscated millions of books which were considered compensation for books destroyed or looted by the Nazis after their invasion of the USSR. I don’t understand this at all: why would they want to fill Soviet libraries with books in German, many of which were highly foreign to the Soviet worldview, if not literally Nazi? Apparently, most local librarians didn’t understand it either. The majority of these books ended up rotting in huge warehouses or were discarded and pulped after it turned out that nobody in town was interested in reading German folk songs or guides to Frankfurt. Even when the books acquired were in Russian, they didn’t necessarily fare any better. After the Turgenev library of Paris, founded and run by Russian émigrés, was removed by the Nazis in 1940, it eventually found itself in the USSR after the war. Even though most of the books were in Russian and politically unproblematic, they were put into storage at a military base where they were eventually almost all burned for heating. Many others of these so-called “trophy” books are still scattered around the former Soviet Union, but locating them is difficult and their return is unlikely.
As it goes on, the book becomes increasingly depressing, since it is hard to discuss the topic of books separate from the wider context of the Holocaust. Of the two major Jewish libraries in Rome, one was mostly returned after the war, while the other one disappeared without a trace. So did most of its readers, who were rounded up in 1943 and sent to the camps after having been promised freedom in exchange for 50 kilograms of gold, which they duly gathered and handed over. While the stolen books from Rome at least had somewhere to return to after the war, this wasn’t the case with the Jewish community in Vilnius. Survivors coming back to the newly-Lithuanian town would discover that the Soviet occupiers had little use for Yiddish books, and intended to pulp even the small number of books that had survived until 1944. In any case, the number of surviving Jews was very low and most of them made off to other countries as soon as they could. As a result, the remainders of the pre-war Jewish libraries of Vilnius are now mostly located abroad.
Lastly comes the most depressing of these stories, from Salonika in Greece, where Nazis and Greeks together obliterated almost every trace of Jewish presence, down to bulldozing the cemetery. Nowadays it takes an archaeologist to recognize traces of what used to be one of the largest Jewish communities in the world just a century ago. Here, Rydell wanders somewhat off topic, as only a small part of the chapter is actually spent discussing books, but I can’t blame him since Salonika is probably the least-known of all the Jewish pre-war cultural centres, and deserves more publicity.
This still leaves out several countries which Rydell does not mention at all, among them Yugoslavia. Bosnia in particular had a notable Jewish community, and it would be interesting to know what happened to their books and where they ended up. I plan to get around to this on the blog, once I’ve collected enough material. If the review concludes with wishing that the book had been longer, this is very faint criticism indeed.
At the end of the day, the main reason why I liked The Book Thieves so much is that Rydell displays a genuine love of old books. He doesn’t care just for incunables and rare collectors’ objects, but also run-of-the-mill books, 19th century books on law and economics and textbooks which, apart from the fact that they were stolen from their owners, are otherwise completely unremarkable. On occasion this love even appears hopelessly naive. At the same time that German public libraries are restituting thousands of pre-WWII books to their owners, many millions of similar books are being weeded and discarded by libraries all over Europe, in some cases cut apart in order to be digitized and the originals discarded, and in other cases just sent to the paper mills directly, on account of their “outdatedness” and libraries’ “lack of space”. I was sometimes surprised while reading The Book Thieves that so many of these books had survived on the shelves long enough to await the beginning of the restitution process.
Of course, even if Rydell is aware of these modern book purges, he can’t afford to discuss them in the book, or else it would appear that Nazi librarians were actually better than their modern-day counterparts. Yet despite this noble lie, I have some hope that by pretending society already cares about old books, The Book Thieves might actually get people to care about them more. The main lesson of these three hundred pages is that books can be valuable even if their market price isn’t very high, what makes them valuable is the people and places they used to belong to, and the long path they have travelled to reach the present day. Such a sentiment is very close to the philosophy behind this blog.
Aly, Götz. “Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State.” New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007.
Rydell, Anders. “The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance.” New York: Penguin Books, 2015.