RBMS14 Plenary 2: Marketplace


The description above for Plenary 2 of the RBMS 2014 Preconference is taken from the preconference website. My notes are below.

Nina Musinsky

Musinsky offered a bookseller’s perspective on the current state antiquarian book market and the forces that are operating on it. She noted that the market currently operates in a climate of scarcity; there are fewer customers interested in antiquarian books, and there are fewer materials in the market, because so many of them have been purchased by American research libraries since WWII. Since the 1970s, these libraries have been collecting less, and focusing more on other duties. However, our work still drives the antiquarian book market to a large extent.

She called out the Internet as a major force changing the market. It has introduced price competition, a focus on digital scholarship within the academic community, and the increasing emphasis on looking at books as artifacts, rather than texts. In response to these pressures, focus among booksellers is increasingly on “unique” materials, such as special copies of books, manuscripts, and ephemera. Libraries no longer desire multiple copies of books, so “common rare books” have become “dead weight” for booksellers.

She noted that foreign language study has been pushed to the “outer periphery” of academic study, and so academic libraries rarely purchase books in non-English languages for textual study. At the same time, an increased cultural focus on images has driven libraries to demand, and booksellers to supply, more and more illustrated books. She knows that special collections librarians often teach students to study books as visual artifacts, rather than texts, and encourages us to ensure that the students are also aware of the value of the textual content. She described several examples of books she has sold recently in detail, reminding me how much I benefit from the wonderful bookseller descriptions of books that I have purchased to use in the classroom an in exhibits.

Stephen Enniss

Enniss is the current director of the Harry Ransom Center, famed for its impact on the market for modern literary manuscripts, which it collected gluttonously through much of the latter half of the 20th century. Enniss began his talk by acknowledging his own discomfort with this legacy, but went on to describe other trends in the literary manuscript market that are driving (increasingly higher) prices, and threaten to destabilize the relationships between research institutions, manuscript dealers, and authors.

He described several recent high profile sales of literary archives, which garnered 7-figure prices. These sale prices have been prominently proclaimed in the press, but Enniss argues that they don’t necessarily represent market-driven competition. As he describes it, traditionally the institution to which an author will sell his or her papers is selected before any price is discussed. Manuscripts dealers serve as matchmakers in these situations, helping authors find institutions in which the collections will be valued and used. Once an institution has been selected, then exclusive negotiations on price begin, with both the seller and the buyer feeling motivated to achieve a fair price.

According to Enniss, there is a new player involved in these negotiations: the literary agent. Agents have traditionally negotiated contracts between authors and publishers, so it is somewhat natural for them to extend their services to archives sales. However, because of the potential for publicity, agents might be focused on finding the best price, instead of finding the best fit for the collection, and so introduce price competition by requesting bids from multiple institutions. Enniss warned that this trend has potential to curb our ability to build the research collections needed to fulfill our mission, and reminded us that “The market doesn’t just happen to us; it is our market too.” He described his ideal market, in which institutions would not compete with one another, but would focus on building unique strengths, for the overall improvement of the research collection environment.

Michelle Light

Light approached the plenary them of “marketplace” from a different angle, considering the ways that special collections and archives sell their own materials. She challenged us to question our use of “permission to publish” fees, which are common. Light argued that such fees are frequently not legal. She cited several authorities to note that because we do not hold the copyright for much of our material, we may be committing “copyfraud” by requiring our users to pay us for permission to publish intellectual material that we do not own. She noted that such fees have been common, and that there are certainly good reasons for charging them, such as the expectation of recovering some of the cost of caring for the material over time and protecting ourselves from copyright infringement claims, but argues that these fees are not only questionably legal, but also unethical, and antithetical to our institutional missions.

Light argued that when we charge permission fees, we are only punishing those good citizens who request our permission to publish. It is nearly impossible to prevent people from redistributing content once it has already been digitized. Often, those who choose to request permission are scholars who are the strongest supporters and most reliable users of special collections. By burdening them with fees to publish material from our collections, we may well be contributing to the decline of scholarship using our collections. She also addressed the specific concern of the use of special collections material in commercial publications. Many feel that if another entity is going to make money off of material in our collections, we should be able to share in the profits by charging fees. However, Light notes that commercial publications often have broader distribution than non-commercial venues, and thus offer the greatest visibility for our materials. “Widespread visibility of our content would make for a better, not a worse world.”

She went on to suggest that we can still make money from our materials by commercializing it ourselves. We can produce and sell prints and other items displaying images from our collections. Light closed by citing the new Reproduction and Use policy she wrote for UNLV, available here.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s