2014 / Saturday

Under Covers: The Wild New World of Book Collecting

Max Chalmers

Nicolas Barker, editor of The Book Collector and first head of conservation at the British Library. Image by Andrei Z used under Creative Commons.

Nicolas Barker, editor of The Book Collector and first head of conservation at the British Library. Image by Andrei Z used under Creative Commons.

In the Italian city of Naples a man steals hundreds of priceless cultural artefacts from the ancient Girolamini Library. He smuggles rare books – including centuries-old editions of works by Aristotle, Galileo and Machiavelli – out of the building. Once it becomes clear the works are missing a question hangs over the library: were they taken by a common burglar or by someone whose motives are more complex? Were they taken by a thief, or by a collector?

It may be true that the novel is dead, however the world of books and book collecting is pulsating with energy, purpose and even mystery. It’s the world in which Nicolas Barker has lived almost all of his life.

On Thursday morning Mr Barker joined Paul Brunton, the Emeritus Curator of the NSW State Library, in the Library’s Mitchell Wing, as part of they Sydney Writers’ Festival. With Mr Brunton playing host, he gave the audience an insight into his bibliographic obsession and the surprisingly vital culture of book collecting.

Barker’s desire to collect started at a young age. Almost 70 years ago he climbed into the roof of a bombed-out printing house that had been damaged but not destroyed during the London Blitz in World War II. Having ascended a drainpipe to reach the roof, Barker peered inside. He discovered the printing press remained intact.

“I still remember the feeling, like I’d really arrived in paradise,” he says.

After purchasing supplies, Barker was able to print his first book, which he presented to his father that Christmas.

Reflecting on his premier publishing effort, Barker laughs with embarrassment at the “hideous” gift he had created. From this humble but inspired start the curious young boy would later go on to become the Head of Conservation at the British Library, as well as the editor of The Book Collector, a journal that promotes academic discussion of book collecting.

Since then, Barker has chased books across the globe and had the privilege of viewing original copies of some of the most important texts in the Western canon, including an original copy of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.

The pursuit of lost manuscripts and forgotten pages unveils stories that rival the excitement contained in any paperback thriller. This may help to explain how Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond series, came to be one of the founding editors of The Book Collector.

Powell’s Rare Books. Image by Andrei Z used under Creative Commons.

Powell’s Rare Books. Image by Andrei Z used under Creative Commons.

Which brings us back to Naples. The theft of so many priceless books from the Girolamini Library may seem stranger than fiction but it’s part of a growing trend that is seeing frauds and forgers experiment with increasingly complex methods to extract valuable works. Mr Barker says that while book collectors have not changed, the prevalence of those who seek books for other ends has.

“Books are what they always were, and those who love them love them in the same way they always have, but there’s a price on it now, which there didn’t use to be,” he says.

With the prices of rare books soaring, the motives of those who pursue them have become markedly less romantic. He says many contemporary collectors would more accurately be called investors: they have calculated their purchases carefully so as to extract the maximum profit on a later sale.

“The book collectors of my youth did really collect them for the love of the thing,” he says.

Marino Massimo De Caro, the Girolamini thief, does not fall into this category. While some thieves do steal for love of the text, motivated only by the will to possess it for themselves and the desire to add to their collection, Barker explains that De Caro’s sins were inspired by greed, not envy. In suspicious political circumstances, the Italian had been installed as Girolamini’s librarian, only to betray his post and replace original manuscripts with expertly designed facsimiles.

A thief is one thing, but it is forgery that really frightens true collectors. Mr Barker says that once the texts have been swapped, forgers are able to sell the originals and hide their money in Cuba or Gibraltar.

With the digital age comes another threat to those who adore the printed press. How does one collect an e-book? According to Mr Barker, digital innovation is actually having an unexpected impact.

“A lot of people have a lot of bad words for the internet and all the curses as well as advantages it has brought. But the one thing it has done is increase the number of booklovers,” he says.

Mr Barker recounts a conversation with a major publisher in Britain who predicted that although cheaper paperbacks will begin to disappear in the next five years, mid-priced alternatives will continue to grow in number.

“The enormous growth of e-publishing is always balanced by this desire, this growing desire, to have the tangible thing that people read at the time,” he says. “It’s a sense of physical contact that you get with the author – or the page – that’s something that’s growing.”

Having seen the rise of microfilm, then microfiche and now digital reading, Mr Barker is confident that what he describes as the “black era” of publishing in the late 20th century has come to an end. And whether you’re a book collector, a casual reader, or a wily thief, that’s good news.