Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

April 20, 2009

Abebooks as Bibliographical Tool

I recently had to compile a largish descriptive bibliography of my Alexandre Dumas collection and, being library-disabled due to having a new baby around, was a little short on bibliographical resources. The best books (Frank Wild Reed’s Bibliography of Alexandre Dumas, say) were rare and not the sort of things I could check out and take home.   Shamefully, I wound up leaning heavily on abebooks.com instead.    I felt that this was a bit like using Wikipedia for a history paper.

So imagine my great surprise when Nicholas Basbanes, that book collecting czar, referred to using abebooks.com as doing “due diligence” in his most recent blog post.  He admits he has “more work to do” but nevertheless I was shocked that a collector (and academic) of his profile would turn to what is essentially the eBay of books to get a gist of his book’s bibliography.  It made me wonder if I should reconsider abebooks’s legitimacy as a research tool.

Abebooks has a lot of things going for it.  Almost every rare and used book seller ever lists at least a portion of their stock there.  So while there is a real wild west of Dudes Selling Books Out Of Their Garage going on, some of the world’s most respectable booksellers also have a presence.  A search might yield 150 results, but at least a few of those ought to be from reputable sellers whose research you can trust.  The star rating system gives you an idea of who is reputable and who might not be, just as on eBay.  You can certainly find the basics of your book on Abebooks: publication date, publisher, edition and binding.  If you’re lucky, you’ll get a blurb of what the book is and why it is important.

But is that any use to anyone?  I use Abebooks in order to identify books I already posses.  So the book is already in front of me – I already know the publisher and binding, and often the date and edition.  What I am looking for is to contextualize my edition, to learn what editions came before and after, what might be unique to my edition, or the history of my edition.  This information might be in a listing, but more often it isn’t.  Further, there’s no guarantee that the information that is listed is correct. And worst, I suspect many sellers also use Abebooks to do their research, and so bad information tends to perpetuate itself as it is copied from listing to listing.  Unlike Wikipedia, nobody corrects Abebooks listings.  It is more like eBay in this regard -buyer beware.

It’s true that the quality of an Abebooks listing goes up with the price of the book.  Someone hoping to sell a $25,000 book is going to be meticulous in their bibliographical description.  Does that mean reliability increases with price?  In my experience, absolutely not.  Here are a couple example from my experience over the last year or so:

“Due diligence” in the case of this book meant “should I let my daughter chew on this”.  The Angry Moon by William Sleator is a beautiful children’s book, and mine is in great condition for a book that has been on a shelf for forty years.  What does Abebooks tell me?  Well, at the bottom end of the spectrum we have the following description from a five-star seller:

Little Brown & Co (Juv Pap). Book Condition: Used – Acceptable. Former Library book. Shows definite wear, and perhaps considerable marking on inside. Price: US$ 42.65

No date or indication if this is the 1st edition.  No real information, and what does “perhaps considerable marking on inside” mean?  Is there or isn’t there considerable marking?  That strikes me as being a really important point.

On the upper end of the scale we have the following:

Little Brown & Co. an Atlantic Monthly Press Book, Boston, 1970. Hardcover. Book Condition: Cover okay, contents good. Stated First Edition. Oversized. 45 pp, Blue hardcover. Pages clean & tight. Cover has a few stains, wear to corners (cardboard showing), slightly loose, but all pages sturdy. Though the cover is as described, the pages appear unread. From the copyright page: The original legend which suggested this story was first recorded by Dr. John R. Swanton in Bulletin 39 of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Tllingit Myths and Texts (1909). The illustrations are elaborations on original Tlingit motifs. Price: US$ 260.00

Now we know the date and edition, and a description of the book’s physical dimensions as well as its contents.  But here’s an interesting thing: “Stated First Edition” means that the book says it is first edition, but the seller isn’t willing to flat out declare the book the a first edition.  Publishers have been known to not omit the “First Edition” identification in subsequent editions or printings.  In this book?  Who knows?  Nobody has bothered to find out if they’ve got a first edition for sure, despite the much higher price tag.

But this is still an inexpensive book.  Here’s another, pricier example.

Le Vicomte de Bargelonne, Alexandre Dumas – Dufour et Mulat, Paris, 1851 Two quarto volumes (268 x 176 mm), havana half-roan, smooth spine tooled, red shagreen-cloth covers (contemporary binding). First illustrated edition, rare, with 58 engraved plates, including 2 steel-engraved frontispieces, by Philippoteaux and J. David.  Price: US$ 3489.20

Sounds alright – right?  Well, hard to say.  The listing confuses me.  What constitutes the “first illustrated edition” of this work is still up for debate – two 1851 editions exist (according to Frank Wild Reed, anyway), a Mulat et Boulanger with 58 engravings, and a Dufour et Mulat with 60 plates (35 in the first volume and 25 in the second).  Which is this?  The Darfour and Mulat ought to have 60, not 58 engravings, so is this the Mulat et Boulanger?  For $3,500 I’d really like to know.

Of course, we all know that the internet makes a bad research tool, right?  It’s just a shortcut, somewhere to get a starting-off point before we head in to a library.  Yah, we all know.  But I think it bears repeating again.  The internet has a lot of content and some of it good, but we’re still not at that place where it replaces the old books.

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