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Rare Book Week makes the world descend on UK

Booksellers and Bibliophiles from all around the world descended on Oxford and London in early September to share their love of books and buy and sell rare books and manuscripts.
Breslauer Prize Book Collector


The 44th ILAB Congress started properly on the 9th September with an impressive programme in and around Oxford, which included visits to the Bodleian Library, and the private libraries at Wormsley and Waddesdon, as well as several Oxford colleges and their libraries.

It ended with a symposium and the award of the 18th Breslauer Prize for Bibliography. Held at the Bodleian's Weston Library, this year's symposium focused on “Libraries, Booksellers, and Collectors: New Ways of Cooperation”.

The day began with a fascinating insight in how private collectors and institutions often compete in the salerooms to purchase significant works with the collector regularly having the upper hand, but it was also a wonderful opportunity to see how collectors and librarians cooperate. Booksellers often think hard about where to place a book or manuscript, and with some private collectors digitising their collections and putting their catalogues online, they provide access which in the past had been the libraries forte. The panel discussion illustrated perfectly how the ecosystem of the wider book world really works, with collectors often rescuing materials that would have otherwise been discarded or buying them specifically for libraries or offering them as a loan.

So many aspects were covered, including problems with libraries selling duplicates (and buying important books back decades later), the importance of young collectors' prizes and how to deal with archiving digital material like emails or websites. There was excellent audience participation and it was good to see how sales to institutions were much more numerous in the US and UK than in Germany for example.

Early on libraries were criticised (maybe rhetorically) as 'tombs where books will die', but the discussion concluded that while libraries need to embrace digital, nothing replaces the actual books and the sensation of handling a book that has been touched by so many important scholars before. Chris Fletcher was especially eloquent in his account of the effect of the books themselves upon students and aspiring researchers.

The second session was a real eye opener of how antiquarian booksellers, librarians and private collectors have to navigate the tricky waters of moving books around the world in the 2020s with increasingly severe legal restrictions of jurisdictions in their countries of residence, the European Union, the post-Brexit UK, UNESCO and others. Trade bodies have raised concerns regarding the impact of the resulting burden of administration for their members for many years, but it was captivating to get a real insight into the differing situations in the UK, Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the US. Issues with transport and paper work were discussed as well as how various EU member states interpret EU law differently. The problems with 'cultural assets' resulting in private collectors not wanting to share their collection with museums any longer and rather 'take their collection with them to their grave' were also brought up. It is particularly difficult to pinpoint whether a book, just like a coin, should be protected in its country of origin, although both objects were specifically created to 'travel' across borders, which most likely have changed since it came into existence. The panel was very much pointing out how important it is that experts from the trade are part of the panels discussing cultural goods.

Possibly an unexpected highlight, the most talked about session afterwards was on security and how that can be achieved through collaboration, communication and transparency. Dr. Andy Durham and David Ward, Detective Inspectors of the Metropolitan Police London gave a brilliant insight into the investigation that led to the successful recovery of the books and convictions in 2020 following the West London warehouse thefts in 2017. The collaboration with the Romanian police made the recovery of almost all the books possible and it was wonderful to hear afterwards that one of the librarians in the room had been able to buy one of the recovered books after they had been found underneath a newly concreted floor of a garage in wheelie bins.

Dr. Jessica Gardner, University Librarian and Director of Library Services at University of Cambridge, UK, had everyone in tears as she shared how an international pr appeal by Cambridge University led to the return of the missing Darwin notebooks in April 2022 after she had been told about their "disappearance a while ago" just a few weeks into her new post. There are still many open questions as to where the notebooks have been, but they are now safely back and in a special display until 4th December as part of a Darwin exhibition.

The example of proactive work against the trafficking of antiquarian materials in the Middle East and Arab regions initiated by the Qatar National Library allowed further insights into international security projects. A short presentation of the ILAB Missing Books Register, which had been instrumental in helping with the above thefts, was also made.

The symposium ended with the awards ceremony of the 18th Breslauer Prize for Bibliography, which was won by Jack Baldwin for his catalogue of the substantial collection of 15th Century printed books in Glasgow libraries and museums. The University of Glasgow Library has one of the richest rare book collections in the UK with 1,042 incunabula and a further 64 are in other Glasgow museums and libraries. Jack worked on his catalogue for decades as did the 2nd prize winner, Prof. Dr. Ernst Fischer, who even interviewed Bernard Breslauer for his work. It is a comprehensive overview of German-speaking emigre publishing activities around the world after 1933. The book covers the diverse range of publishing houses as well as the extensive network of booksellers involved, of which Breslauer was one. Renaud Adam, 3rd prize winner, made a wonderful presentation of his thesis of the introduction of typography in Southern Netherlands during the 15th/16th Centuries with a fine example of printing the first edition of Thomas More's Utopia.

This year saw a record number of submissions for the prize…99 and all of those were on view at the ILAB stand at Firsts in London from the 15th to 19th September. The Book Collector collaborated with ILAB on the Festschrift for the Breslauer Prize and we were able to share the stand with ILAB and some of the moments when visitors were able to discover some of the works which, as is often the case with bibliographies, they had only been able to read about online.

In its 65th year, Firsts saw the return of over 100 international rare booksellers to London for the flagship ABA fair at the Saatchi Gallery and the atmosphere was almost back to 'normal' with only the transport complications around the State funeral making life more difficult for the organisers than anticipated.

There seemed to be good sales on the preview night as well as on Friday and excellent visitor numbers over the weekend, which certainly brought a few new buyers through the door, but certainly opened eyes and minds to new collectors.

There was a special theme all around the fair focusing on banned books with exhibitors highlighting some examples on their stand, including James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), D. H. Lawrence's novel Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928), Nicolas Copernicus, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543), which was one of the most expensive books on view at the fair, as well as the first translation of Animal Farm by George Orwell into Russian (1945). Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses (1988) was on view as well as Salome (1893) by Oscar Wilde, 120 Days of Sodom (1904) by Marquis de Sade and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita (1955), which is again making it on banned books lists. Just as we think this is all behind us in the Western World, we spotted an article in the Guardian: '‘We’ve moved backwards’: US librarians face unprecedented attacks amid rightwing book bans.'

I particularly enjoyed the display of banned books and ephemera by Gustav IV Adolf of Sweden at Centralantikvariatet from Stockholm and Carl Williams' stand which probably had the highest percentage of once 'banned' material…and some book dealers probably think they should still be banned.

Fairs are always about discovering wonderful books, manuscripts, maps, prints or ephemera, but it is also about talking to like-minded people. My absolute highlight chat was with a couple from Boston, who had actually flown to London to watch the Chelsea match which was of course cancelled. Both bibliophiles (the husband a member of one of the oldest societies of bibliophiles in Boston), you can imagine how thrilled they were when they spotted the ads for Firsts on the Kings Road and dare I say it, they were very pleased that the football had been cancelled.

This article was first published by The Book Collector on 22 September 2022 and is reposted here with the permission of the author.
Image by Silke Lohmann