Treasures Found in Books

I’m sure all of us have opened up a recently purchased used book and been surprised to find additional material laid in (i.e., inserted but loose) or tipped in (i.e., mounted on one edge). The question is, what do these do to value?

I have found many things in books, some as ordinary as business cards, others far more unusual (a lock of hair was a strange one). Newspaper articles, bookmarks, original receipts, pressed flowers, and postcards are all common finds. Sadly, finding money doesn’t happen too often, though once we did find $120 in twenty dollar bills (this in a book that ended up not being worth cataloging).

The interesting books are ones that have unique material that is somehow related to the book or the author. ALSs (autographed letters signed), original photographs, and extra illustrations are all good examples. A first edition copy of Dracula with photographs taken on the set of one of the film adaptations would be far more interesting than one without. A first edition copy of The Cat in the Hat is most certainly collectible, but not as desirable as one with a signed letter including a one-of-a-kind Seuss doodle.

Most collectors of books crave the unique, which is why these extras sometimes become so important. Not only do they add flavor to what is otherwise one of thousands of copies of a book, they tell a story that transcends the content of the book. They establish the book as a historical artifact, something that was present during a particular sequence of events. That is what most bibliophiles are interested in preserving – history.

This is the same logic that makes signed books more desirable and more widely collected. Certainly a particular arrangement of characters in ink added to a page doesn’t impart any value – what is valuable is the knowledge that this book was in the presence of its author. Historical proximity brings a premium.

I could probably wax philosophical about the reasons for this (as human beings we fear death and therefore cling to the past, nostalgia is a powerful intoxicant, etc., etc.). What interests me at present, though, is the tendency of people to stow these historical items in the first place.

As I work through a recently acquired consignment of World War I material, I notice many inserts. Newspaper articles. Photographs of regiments laid into volumes dedicated to the history of the same. Correspondences with authors. Original purchase receipts. Post-It notes marking significant passages, or demarcating mentions of a particular historical figure.

The tendency to catalog is fascinating to me, and I see it in many collectors. It is almost as though many see themselves as curators of the past, bestowing upon themselves the responsibility of preserving knowledge and passing it along to future generations in a coherent way. Books become time capsules, awaiting the hands of careful scholars yet to be born.

I like to think I have some part in this. Gathering these items, examining the constituent parts, and arriving at some sort of conclusion regarding what this book’s life involved. Who it involved. Why that was important, and why we should be careful to remember that. Certainly the texts these books contain can be preserved by many means, digital, curatorial, or otherwise. But the extras, the unexpected treasures, the added color of provenance… this is something we must continue to preserve the old-fashioned way.

Some days it amazes me to once again realize that this is, at least in part, my job.

Published in: on June 24, 2013 at 11:38 AM  Leave a Comment  
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