Thursday, September 07, 2006

Library on guard with old books


Collectors are trying to acquire some simple but nostalgic volumes.

Those of a certain age may remember with fondness the books of their youth – those sweet, innocent boys’ and girls’ adventure books from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. Pure as the driven snow, they were – their characters didn’t use drugs, have sex or cuss.

The Allen County Public Library has an estimated 10,000 books in its collection that fit this general description, said Associate Director Steve Fortriede. And a strange thing is starting to happen – demand for these relics appears to be on the increase, elevating them almost to collectors’ status. And that is forcing the library to rethink how it’s going to protect books it didn’t even realize had that much value.

For example, Fortriede recently received a letter from a book collector seeking to buy the library’s copy of “Secret of Thunder Mountain,” written by Norvin Pallas and copyrighted in 1951. The dealer was willing to pay $100 for the small hardbound book with yellowed pages. Fortriede guessed the dealer was trying to assemble a collection for a client. He said if a dealer was willing to pay $100, a client might have been willing to pay double that amount.

At one time the library would have classified the book as a “fifth-to-eighth-grade boys’ book,” Fortriede said.

The letter from the dealer wasn’t a random missive. Fortriede said the library has received three letters seeking the same types of books in the last couple of months. He sees a trend.

So who’s buying these books?

Two types of people. They’re in demand with a lot of home-schoolers, Fortriede said, many of whom choose books from this era for their children to read because they don’t want to have to worry about any objectionable material. Then there are the collectors, who appear to be driven by nostalgia.

Modern technology has made it easier for collectors and dealers to find out-of-print books. Many use WorldCat, a worldwide library cooperative Web site, to locate specific books. Then they can try to persuade a library to sell its copy.

Or they can seek an interlibrary loan – for example, a library system elsewhere would borrow a book from the Allen County Public Library. Libraries do this routinely, but Fortriede fears savvy collectors will get their hands on one of these books and then never return it, opting to pay a minimal fee for the lost book when they know it’s really worth much more.

Fortriede said the library may have to restrict some of these books from interlibrary loans, but the problem lies in figuring out which of the 10,000 are likely to be stolen, and which aren’t. He also suggested the library might put a higher replacement price on the more valuable books to discourage people from “losing” them and paying the fee.

Another option is providing people with photocopies of the books. Some people don’t want the actual copy, they just want to read the book, and photocopying or digitizing the books will suffice. Some books of this genre are still in print – such as the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series – so theft of those is not a concern.

The more obscure “Secret of Thunder Mountain” is a different story. Fortriede declined the dealer’s offer. “We have a policy we never sell the last copy of anything,” he said. That’s what makes the depth and breadth of the library’s collection so impressive, he said.

However, he didn’t plan to put the “Secret of Thunder Mountain” back on the shelf, either. It may end up in the library’s rare books collection.

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