Just what has been going on Down Under? - A great deal has been going on, “Down Under” this year!
By Sally Burdon
Having held both a wonderful conference in May and a hugely successful Melbourne Rare Book Week and Melbourne Rare Book Fair in late July the Australian and New Zealand Association of Antiquarian Booksellers (ANZAAB) is on a high! Not only have we enjoyed great success with these two events with our profile considerably raised and many sales made – but, and this is a significant but - we have learnt something very powerful and extremely heartening. We now know that there is just as much interest as there ever was in rare books – if not in fact more, but the methods we need to use to reach and motivate collectors have changed considerably. Both the ANZAAB Conference and most particularly the Melbourne Rare Book Fair are proof of this. We tried something different and it worked!
We have learnt if we can speak directly to our target audience, the people who actually care, or will care if they get the opportunity to see rare books, we can get a large number of the right people to attend our events. I can imagine that if I was reading this, I would be thinking, indeed, that is obvious and we are already doing this! It may well be that you are, but my intention is not to boast or to announce that the wheel has been re-invented in Australia but rather to share some of our experiences. To share with you how we managed to get from 800 – 1000 attending our fairs to around 5000 in just 3 years. How we organised a conference for librarians and collectors – rather than attending a conference organised by either of these groups. We have attempted to be very proactive as our more traditional manners of interacting with our public were no longer working as well as they should. In writing this article I hope that if you are organising a fair, a conference or some other event entirely you might find something in our experiences that you can use in your endeavours to promote rare books and works on paper.
ANZAAB Conference May 2014 at the National Library of Australia
In May this year ANZAAB held a conference in partnership with the National Library of Australia. This conference wasn’t the first conference ANZAAB has held as we have been holding conferences for our members since the mid 1990s, but this one differed significantly from those that had gone before. This time we invited rare book and special collections librarians from Australia and New Zealand, other non-ANZAAB booksellers and collectors to join us. We recognised that we have one very similar desire; the desire to access pertinent book related information and that this could bring us together in an atmosphere quite different to that of a book fair. We also were well aware that to be the organisers of the fair would indicate that ANZAAB members are leaders in the Australian and New Zealand rare book community. The message we wanted to send is that our members are expert, organised and keen to know how best to serve librarians and libraries.
We believed that if we could organise a carefully planned conference which delivered high quality talks on a variety of relevant subjects it would draw attention to just how seriously ANZAAB members take professional bookselling. We also were very keen to use this conference to learn more about the issues facing librarians in current times and to address any misunderstandings between our two closely related lines of work. I have noticed that although booksellers and librarians need, and often like each other, they frequently have no real understanding of the issues that the other faces. We felt strongly that the conference could lead to a deeper understanding which would be very beneficial to both parties.
This conference was ANZAAB’s reaction to the period of change that many of our libraries in Australia are undergoing. Many of our most experienced librarians are retiring and the positions within the libraries are changing. In many libraries the position of rare book librarian does not exist anymore or this position has been reinvented as another job title, and with that, the position holder often has less time to spend on thinking about and working with rare books. There is no university in Australia which offers qualifications in rare book librarianship, nor has there been for some time. The younger people who are taking over the vacant positions are in some cases experienced and well qualified, but in many instances they are not. This is not a situation they are happy with. It is clear that these younger librarians want to learn. They may not be trained rare book librarians but they are now in the position of being required to acquire out of print and rare materials. They want to do this correctly, but how? How is it possible to tell from a catalogue description if the book is in good condition or not? Why do prices on the on-line bookstores vary so wildly? Who should they buy from? These librarians know the cheapest isn’t necessarily the best but how do they justify buying from an ANZAAB or ILAB dealer when their price may not apparently be the “best” and they may well be called to account for the price paid? Many of these people have been appointed from other sections within their libraries and now have to learn fast on the job. As we became increasingly aware of the situation facing these librarians we realised that this was an opportunity for ANZAAB to reach out to these newer librarians and invite them to join us in learning about books. Thus with all of these thoughts running through our heads the idea of the conference was born!
The National Library of Australia (NLA) was enthusiastic and supportive from the very first conversation we had with them. Amelia McKenzie, Assistant Director-General, to whom we spoke first, immediately understood the aim and potential. She suggested that we widen our aim a little to include book collectors as well, which we did, and their presence added much for both booksellers and librarians alike. The NLA generously allowed us to hold the conference in two conference rooms at no cost. Better still, they officially became the joint conveners of the conference which translated into great help and promotion from their events section. The NLA’s partnership very importantly gave us kudos. The Director-General of the NLA, Anne-Marie Schwirtlich opened the conference and we were off to a great start!
Although it is not practical here to run through the entire programme, which can still be found on the ANZAAB site if you care to look, I think it might be helpful to touch on the general approach we took. Early on we had decided to have four blocks of sessions each with a theme; rather than calling for papers we decided what topics needed to be addressed and then sought out interesting speakers. On the first morning Dr Shef Rogers, University of Otago, came from New Zealand and conducted a full session on descriptive bibliography, following which the afternoon was devoted to photography with a variety of excellent speakers. The second morning focussed on libraries and the book trade; it started with talks delivered by video and Skype from Tom Congalton, the Immediate Past President of ILAB and Dan De Simone, Folger Librarian and highly respected former member of the trade in the United States. These knowledgeable and articulate speakers gave an international perspective to the session – it is all too easy, even in the days of globalisation, to reflect primarily on one’s own region, a dangerous and limiting practice which we hoped to ameliorate a little with these two perspectives. The morning culminated in a half hour Pop-Up book fair at which 16 ANZAAB members set up their “stands”. Each dealer was given half a table on which to set up 5 – 10 of their best books! Time was limited to half an hour with an overflow into the lunch break and before we knew it the Pop-Up Fair was over. It was a highly successful event with sales all round and some very significant ones too! The final afternoon of the Conference was the National Library’s opportunity to share some of their knowledge, with a practical talk about preservation, a magnificent display of treasures from many sections of the library curated especially for us and behind the scenes tours of the library.
The conference had many high points but one session which I personally found particularly useful and at times highly amusing was the Secret Questions Session – or Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Booksellers/Librarians But Were Afraid to Ask. During the first day we had invited conference attendees to put any questions they might like to ask, but felt somewhat awkward about, anonymously into the secret questions box. We were delighted – we got a very large number of questions – unfortunately far more than time allowed us to discuss. The moderator, Alex Philp, Director, Overseas Collections Management, NLA, put the questions to a panel of two librarians Richard Overell, Rare Books Librarian, Monash University and Richard Neville, Mitchell Librarian, State Library of New South Wales and two booksellers Jörn Harbeck, ANZAAB President and Paul Feain, Cornstalk Bookshop and former ILAB Committee Member. The panel entered right into the spirit of the session. They were very open and shared views that were insightful and remarkably honest. The aim of this session had been to help break down barriers and this was accomplished beautifully. The audience were riveted by the conversation which was at times funny or fascinating and often both!
We were very fortunate that the NLA were also keen to offer something of the flavour of the conference to the general public as well – further spreading the collecting message. At 6pm on both of the evenings the NLA hosted talks in their theatre. The first evening was an excellent in-conversation between three knowledgeable, experienced and most entertaining ANZAAB booksellers – Kay Craddock, Ann McCormick and Nicholas Pounder, most professionally moderated by Amelia McKenzie. On the second evening we were treated to Two Sides of the Bibliographic Coin when first Nicolas Barker editor of the Book Collector and then John Baxter, author and collector spoke. There was a high turn out on both evenings and the NLA were delighted with the very positive response – particularly pleasing as these events required tickets and were not free.
Overall the conference achieved its aims, in fact it went better than we had dared to hope. The feedback we gained was remarkably positive - 100% of those who completed the feedback form on the web said they would come to the next conference!
ANZAAB’s plan is to hold similar conferences every two years. This frequency we feel will allow the conferences to gain some momentum and be remembered as worthwhile events to attend while not being so frequent that both our volunteer organisers and those attending tire of them. The future of this model for ANZAAB Conferences, certainly for the next few years seems assured. The National Library of Australia have been kind enough to indicate that they would be pleased to work with us again and we have also received indications from other major libraries that they would also like to host our next conference. As the aims of our conferences are to spread the name of ANZAAB widely and to further the education in rare books of as many booksellers, librarians and collectors as possible in Australia we intend to hold future conferences in other major cities in order to make them accessible to as many people as possible.
To be continued…. Part II Melbourne Rare Book Week and Rare Book Fair.
Published in the recent issue of the ABA Newsletter. Presented here by permission of the author. Picture: Sally Burdon.