RBMS and The 2010 Bookseller Showcase

The relationship between book dealers and librarians can often be a bit like that between siblings. We both may come from the same family of book lovers, but that doesn’t mean there’s not some rivalry or even occasional conflict. This is probably inevitable. After all, institutions and booksellers are often competing for the same materials, and each approaches those materials with differing perspectives and goals. Dealers are ultimately looking to make a profit, while institutions are charged with stewarding materials and making them available for the coming generations.

The annual conference of RBMS, the Rare Book and Manuscript Section of the ALA (American Librarian’s Association) was held this week in Philadelphia, and as has been the case for the past several years the ABAA sponsored both the event’s opening reception and the Bookseller’s Showcase -- a sort of mini book fair, where about 30 rare book dealers display a selection of their wares for a critical mass of some of our most important customers: rare book librarians and special collections curators. It’s an opportunity for dealers and librarians to meet and discuss common goals and interests, as well as to explore ways we can work together.

This year was my first exhibiting at RBMS and overall I found the event deeply heartening, not only to be among colleagues and fellow book-lovers, but to be reminded of the enormous diversity of holdings and collections in rare book rooms around the country. I heard about collections of illustrated bibles, Victorian scrapbooks, and Vietnam “reimaginings.” I learned about books in surprising places (did you know the US Naval Academy at Annapolis is the repository of seven incunabula?). While it’s often the bigger institutions and collections (author archives, etc.) that get most of the press, this event amply demonstrated that there are hundreds and hundreds of growing and evolving archives and collections on all manner of topics at all manner of colleges, universities, and other institutions. 

And if there was one common refrain from those building these collections, it was that too often they are being woefully under-utilized. I met many librarian deeply committed to bringing their world more and more into the curriculum of their schools and classrooms.

Unfortunately, another theme often heard was funding and budget cuts, of furloughs and threatening lay-offs. But for every tone of worry, there was also a note of optimism -- a growing collection, a newly-endowed fund -- even if only tentative. And most hopeful of all were the number of younger, creative, and eager librarians in attendance. It bodes well for the future of our special collections.

For those wanting a fuller taste of this year’s event, my colleague Ian Kahn of Lux Mentis booksellers has been posting daily updates on his blog. And for an even fuller idea of what the conference is all about, audio and PDFs from last year’s RBMS have been posted on the conference website.

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