Do Scholars Still Need Used Book Stores?

Former bookshop owners are complaining that they can’t compete with the online sellers. If one goes searching for a particular book, the odds are very good that somewhere in the world someone is willing to sell it cheaply, writes Peter Wood of the National Association of Scholars.

This has great advantages, of course, for the student or scholar who knows exactly what he wants, often it only takes a few minutes and a few dollars with the help of the American Book Exchange (ABE) to find what you want.

A new international market has been spawned out of the need of schools and students looking for long out-of-print books. In the late 1990s, when used book sellers began to put their inventories online, many of us delighted in the opportunity to fill gaps in our personal libraries.

But what effect has his online global market had on our used book stores? Many certainly still exist but the survivors seem more and more to cater to the antiquarian trade.

“They are places to go when looking for the rare, the valuable, and the collectible, and are less and less likely to provide the chance to explore the great miscellany of the undifferentiated and often undistinguished past,” says Wood.

“We have, via the globalization of online book selling, a splendid way to lay hands on the books we know we want. But this facility comes at the price of making it much less likely to discover the books we don’t yet know we want.”

As retail book stores like Borders close, and innovations like e-books and kindles grow, there’s obviously a shift in emphasis and the ways in which we read and study. But what stands to be lost in this transition is something intangible, but very real.

Wood sums it up:

“Perhaps what we stand to lose is a loosely ordered curriculum of left-over ideas that are best met—or maybe can only be met—by accident.”

Wednesday
11 30, 2011
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