Provenance

Would you agree that librarians seem to put less emphasis on where their rare, old books came from than art curators? I only have my several limited experience to draw on, but from talking to a couple of rare book librarians, the answer I’ve gotten to “where did you acquire this book?” seems to be “from a bookseller”. “And how did the bookseller get the book?” “I don’t know.” Or, “Generally, booksellers get their books from other booksellers or from estates, but regarding this specific book,  I don’ t know.”

It’s not fair: the rare book librarians are already such learned people. They know a bunch of different languages, half of which are of the “ancient” or “dead” category; they pull obscure facts from the nether regions of their brains; they’re so terribly impressive and dazzling that one unfairly expects them to know everything. Nonetheless, I’m terribly disappointed that they don’t know; it’s like being told Santa Claus doesn’t exist.

I wish they knew. As a lot of the old, rare books are artificially important — that is, they’re important as material objects rather than as instruments for delivering the printed text — a history of them would surely enhance their appeal, their artificially value. “Oh, you say that this book is by an important printer? Or that one was owned by the queen of Sicily?” “How marvelous! And how did they get here? What paths did they take to finally come to rest in your institutional bosom? Whose hands did they pass through? Can’t you spin a Red Violin tale for the books? Won’t I appreciate the expense you lavish on them so much more if I can get this bit of context for the objects? Don’t librarians, like historians, scholars, and salesmen, hope to excite by telling stories about their products? Tell me the stories, the biographies of the objects.”

Alas, books are not anywhere near likely to be forged or plundered as paintings, sculptures, or other forms of art. As such, their provenance is not accorded the same significance, and librarians do not tell their tales.

(To read the importance of provenance to the art world, please see Provenance, The Man Who Made Vermeers, Fake, Chasing Aphrodite, or anything of the other books Amazon recommends that strikes your fancy when you search for one of the above.)

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