Old Books

Kim Iles, Inventory Consultant

I collect old forest measurement books.  I would not like to encourage you to do that too (it just increases the competition).  You could, however, do a lot to help people who will collect books 50 years from now.  It’s true that old books or research papers have some interesting results or ideas, but they are more important than that.  They are a part of our history, and a part of the culture of people who measure the forest.  For that reason, I like having them around me.   

Old forestry books are cheap too, so they will not break the bank when you acquire them.  The ones advertised on the Internet are 2 to 10 times as expensive as they would be in a dusty bookstore.  If you are looking for something really unusual, or want to find out what is available, the Internet is a good resource.  One of the best sites is http://dogbert.abebooks.com, where you can search by title, keywords or author by clicking on the “search” tab.  They also have information on map collecting and preservation.   

Collecting professional books is a different matter than book collecting in general.  Commercial book collectors want a book that looks like it was just printed, without a mark on it.  For people like us, it is just the opposite.  We want to know who owned it before, see their scribbled notes in the margins, and the series of bookplates that identifies the chain of owners.  

So here is the first suggestion.  Sign your books.  Put in your bookplate.  Make snippy notes in the margins.  Add a note to your friend when you give them the book.  100 years from now, people will enjoy it.  In all but very rare and unusual books, that is the right thing to do.  If you feel guilty, sign in pencil, but do it.   

Book collectors call these “association copies”, and sometimes this increases their value.  Want an ordinary copy of an old book on geology?  By the way, it was with Charles Darwin when he was on the Beagle, and he wrote a lot of notes in it when he thought the author was screwball, then inscribe it to a friend when he gave it away ... get the point? 

Second, keep the paper “dust jacket” that covers the book, if you can.  They are hard to find.  There are plastic covers for dust jackets that keep them in good shape, and help to protect the book as well.   

Third, put photos in them.  Photos make good bookmarks (please – record who is in the photo).  More generally, that is a good place for professional photos.  “Look, here’s a photo in Gifford Pinchot’s book of him fishing with my dad, and a little map of where they were.”  Do I make my point?  I keep many of the photos of myself with that author pasted in their textbooks on the blank extra pages at the front and back of the book.  At least the photos are not lost, like so many others I have taken over the years.   

Fourth, get them signed.  Most of my texts are signed by their authors, and it adds something to them.  Sometimes a book is from the collection of someone interesting.  I will often trade a copy of something in my library for one that was owned by someone whom I admire.  “Look – this book is from the library of Bert Husch and it was sent to him by his friend, the author of it.”  It’s more fun to read than an ordinary copy.  It’s a simple thing to ask someone to sign a book or trade for one you would like.   


Fifth, give your old books away.  Give them to friends.  Give them to students.  Give them as recognition.  Make them part of the chain of people connected to our profession.  Your kids will not appreciate them (although they will keep them in perfect shape until they throw them away, because they will never be opened).  Think of your younger colleagues as your “professional children,” and pass your books on to them.   

Last, don’t give them to a library.  Librarians do not like books – librarians like shelf space.  Half of my book collection was once thrown out by a library to make more shelf space – sometimes after the author himself presented the book to them.  Besides, part of the joy of such things is the joy of individual ownership.  In a library, or a museum, who has that joy?  Neat things should belong to people who will appreciate them, and who will pass them along to other people who will appreciate them.   

A few years ago I had a very rare copy of a first edition in silviculture.  It was the author’s personal copy, with his notes for the next edition.  I sent it to someone who taught silviculture.  It was too good to belong to someone like me who was not in that specific field, and who would not appreciate its true value.  Make sure that these objects reach the right people.   

The same things are true of old maps (which I know almost nothing about) and old equipment (which I do collect and display at meetings).  Virtually none of these things have any serious dollar value, and they never will.  They have professional value, and they have personal value.  Make it a point to take care of such things during your time as their keeper.  They belong inside the profession, both as wonderful objects and as reminders of the clan to which we all belong.   

In the meantime, keep them dry, away from direct sunlight, and free from paper clips that rust.  Avoid “Post-it” notes, since they can bind to the pages over time.  Otherwise, read them, use them and enjoy them.  That’s what they were meant for.  If they get “used up” from that – fair enough.   

PS: A really good book on the subject is “A Gentle Madness” by N.A. Basbanes.  The title refers to the obsession with old books once used as a form of insanity plea in the trial of a book thief. Book collectors will recognize themselves on many of these pages. 

Originally published April 2001

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