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International Cooperation - or the power of nearly 2000 booksellers

In the past ILAB had always seemed to me rather distant and not relevant to my business or life in the trade. I believe I was not alone in this opinion. Even worse I thought it was a dull body "banging" on about rules and regulations which the National Associations already did very well. I really didn't see ILAB as serving any purpose for me as I wasn't interested in exhibiting overseas. So yes, you guessed it; this is one of those how wrong could I be stories…

Published on 16 Feb. 2016


By Sally Burdon

In April 2014 I joined the ILAB Committee, something that not long before, I would not have ever considered. In fact I had absolutely no interest in doing so. So why the change of heart?

In the past ILAB had always seemed to me rather distant and not relevant to my business or life in the trade. I believe I was not alone in this opinion. Even worse I thought it was a dull body “banging” on about rules and regulations which the National Associations already did very well. I really didn’t see ILAB as serving any purpose for me as I wasn’t interested in exhibiting overseas.

So yes, you guessed it; this is one of those how wrong could I be stories…

I need to go back a bit. I wasn’t very interested in Australian and New Zealand Association of Antiquarian Booksellers (ANZAAB) either. I used to be when I was younger and had served on the committee for a number of years, but had become discouraged and remained an ANZAAB member but not a committee member. After some persuasion I was convinced to re-join the committee and within a year I was President. There was no competition for this role, in fact, I think members were relieved to see that someone would take the position for a bit!

Sadly it took tragedy to reveal the real value of these organisations to me. On the morning of February 22nd, 2011, when I had been ANZAAB President for just a few months, a massive earthquake hit Christchurch in New Zealand killing 185 people and devastating much of this delightful city. Booksellers were among the people whose lives were dramatically affected during the mere 10 seconds the earthquake shook Christchurch.

Here in Australia, on the other side of the Tasman Sea, we heard the reports and were shocked. Although at that time none of the booksellers in Christchurch were ANZAAB members, there was no doubt ANZAAB had to show support. Almost immediately we were approached by the ABA offering some financial support for the affected booksellers. Very soon afterwards the ABAA also sent funds and between the three associations we were able to help the affected booksellers. Retired ANZAAB member, John Palmer was “our man on the ground”, he investigated the individual bookseller’s needs and distributed the funds accordingly. Of course even with the incredible generosity of ABA , ABAA and ANZAAB members we did not have enough money to make a significant difference but hoped what we did send would provide some support, both in physical and psychological terms.

Later that year, completely out of the blue, as I was setting up our stand at a Sydney book fair I took a phone call from a number I didn’t know. It was from one of the Christchurch booksellers who had been helped at the time of the earthquake. He phoned to explain just how much the support had meant to him. He explained, emotion evident in his voice, that although the new computer he was able to purchase thanks to these funds was an enormous help, what really mattered, what had actually kept him going was the generosity of ILAB booksellers. He felt part of a worldwide group, a group who really empathised with him. He felt that across the world people had taken note, were thinking of him and most importantly cared. That there were people he didn’t know in the UK, USA and Australia who cared about the demoralizing situation he found himself in was invaluable. By the time the call ended I was the one in tears. I realised that ILAB, the facilitator of the relationships which brought this international support about, was far more important than I had understood to that date. We have all heard about the power of working together - often I suspect – but to be in the privileged position to see directly the difference generosity and support from across the world makes was very humbling and inspiring.

This support of members of the trade wherever they are, whoever they are, known or unknown, is something that is not quantifiable. It reflects the very reason ILAB was formed by Menno Hertzberger when following the horrors of the Second World War and the complete collapse of the international antiquarian book trade he was determined that never again should war occur. Menno Herzberger believed that the powerful nature of human relationships could be a significant part in preventing the hatred and senselessness of war so set about creating links between booksellers across international borders. Long before the current use of social networks Menno Hertzberger inspired the building of a collegial network of booksellers to help each other and promote rare books. Menno Hertzberger’s network is of course, ILAB.

I think there is sometimes a perception that ILAB is a group of a few out of touch booksellers who attend meetings and discuss things relating to the high end of the trade over glasses of wine and fine dinners. The feeling being that this is all very congenial but not relevant to the average ILAB affiliate. This is not correct. I have been on the committee for nearly two years and I have seen how things run. Believe me I had hoped to just observe for a little but no, there is no time for that! A bookseller is elected to the ILAB Committee to work and serve the trade, and that you shall do! Led by the indefatigable ILAB President Norbert Donhofer who cares deeply about the book trade there is no role for the mere observer. Norbert, for example, has spent countless unpaid hours trying to find ways through the extraordinarily complicated situations that surround the major thefts and forgeries that have recently come to light in Europe. Each member of the committee takes very seriously the issues that come before them. Each has a portfolio and works on that reporting to the Committee as a whole as required. The email traffic can be high at times as discussions take place and decisions are made without having to wait for the next time we meet in person.

Each ILAB meeting I have attended has increased my knowledge and understanding of how hard the committee works to support the National Associations’ Presidents who are those in charge. Just in case you are not familiar with how it all works, the ILAB Committee serves the National Associations Presidents’ wishes, rather than the other way around. Often the ILAB committee suggests an idea to the national presidents but nothing significant is done or started on without the support of the majority of the presidents. My colleagues on the ILAB committee are a dauntingly smart group of people who do their homework and come to the meetings with ideas and a willingness to consider all viewpoints. It is a remarkable situation, a group of people in the same line of business who have already given up significant amounts of their time over the year come together to work hard for the good of the trade as a whole. My colleagues are intelligent, experienced, well informed and on top of this the discussions take place in English, a language that is for most present, their second or third language. It is impressive!

Now my call to action!

I hope, if you are still reading this, you also recognise the power of working together to achieve an aim larger than we can achieve singularly – either as an individual or a National Association.

I invite you to join us, your colleagues across the world, on April 23 and celebrate UNESCO’s World Book and Copyright Day in your local community!

In 2015 ILAB held a celebration of this day which was far more successful than we could possibly have imagined. Thirty two events in twelve countries took place on 23 April 2015: A charity auction (in Cape Town), an appraisal day (in Moscow) and 30 Pop Up Book Fairs. The day opened in Australia, with a progression of events through Asia, Europe and then across the United States. The creativity shown by the ILAB affiliates who organised these Pop Up Fairs was inspiring and unexpected. If you have in mind static Pop Up Book Fairs where middle aged and older booksellers showed their wares to similarly aged book buyers think again - you definitely need to look at the blog we spent the whole, yes, the entire 24 hours putting together live!

On April 23rd ILAB affiliates held pop up book fairs giving children, students and a very broad cross section of the general public access to rare books. These fairs popped up at the most unexpected places, to mention just a few; a barge on a canal in Amsterdam, a woolshed in the Australian bush, a library in an underprivileged section of Antwerp, an elegant historic business man’s club in Munich, a bookshop in central Tokyo, the new Museum of Literature in Vienna, a brew pub in Portland Oregon, a whole street in Groningen… - there was even a travelling pop up fair in England with “Celeste the Rare Book Campervan” visiting primary schools on the road from Salisbury to Oxford.

The purpose of ILAB’s participation was to celebrate our trade by:

i. Showing rare books to people who would not think to come to an antiquarian book fair

ii. To raise money for UNESCO’s literacy work in South Sudan

iii. And finally, most importantly of all to gain publicity for the trade.

It is the only worldwide event of this type and until last year it had never been done. Some events were more successful than others. At some events significant sales were made, but not at all. Although of course sales are very desirable when they happen, however this day was only partially about sales. The power of the day lay in ILAB affiliates across the world working together. Publicity on the book sites on the Internet was extensive and overwhelmingly positive.

It is difficult to quantify the success of the ILAB’s participation in World Book and Copyright Day. However we do know some things for certain – hits to the ILAB site doubled on the day (which undoubtedly means more books were sold), UNESCO has asked ILAB to become an official partner and we raised over 10,000 Euros for books for children in South Sudan, one of the poorest and most desperate countries on earth. I know that the day did far more than this as we have received messages in the days afterwards that told us of sales made and new contacts made. Being part of a worldwide movement of booksellers promoting rare books and raising money for children for whom any book at all is a rare book is worth spending a few hours doing.

What are you doing on Saturday April 23 this year? Join us!

Organising a group of booksellers to do something together to promote the trade and fill the ILAB/UNESCO Empty Book case poster with symbolic book spines representing donations for South Sudan is surely a valuable and worthwhile thing you can do? It only takes a little time and imagination and together we can live the ILAB spirit. Together we can be very powerful indeed. Take a look at the video of last year’s World Book and Copyright Day celebrations on the ILAB site and you will see what I mean.
Please email me or ILAB website editor Barbara van Benthem if you would like to participate in or contribute to World Book and Copyright Day in 2016.


Published in the ABA Newsletter, presented here with some additions by permission of the author. Pictures: ILAB.

Get inspired! You are invited!



23 APRIL, 2016

Across the world

Learn more on the blog >> on YouTube and >> on the ILAB website.
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