Don’t Steal This Book!

While the debate rages over whether paper is really dead and whether libraries should keep trying to preserve their print collections when they should instead be going all digital, the question occasionally comes up: Why is print still valuable?

As a case in point, a recent episode of the show Antiques Roadshow (Program #1105) featured a complete collection of the quarterly magazine Camera Work, published from 1903-1917, and edited by Alfred Stieglitz. It’s appraised value was from $60,000 to $90,000.

This was brought to my attention by a librarian who mentioned that their library has the same complete collection, and who decided, after seeing it, to move the collection to the rare book room, where access would be restricted.

Obviously this would be a good candidate for digitization, which would make the magazine available to patrons without having to worry about anyone walking out with a volume or two, or, worse, lifting one of the plates. The only problem is copyright. A complete book reproducing all 559 illustrations was produced in 1978 by Dover Publications, and another reprint was produced as recently as 1997 by Taschen.

camerawork.jpg Let’s pretend, though, for just a moment, that copyright laws don’t exist and that digital copies could be made by anyone. Would that make the original worthless? Making copies is, in essence, what some publishers have done, and while they’re not free, you can get a copy of the Dover paperback from Amazon for just $13.57. Think about that: the original’s appraised price is at least $60,000. The reproduction goes for under $20.

Admittedly anything is only worth what people are willing to pay for it, but appraisers don’t pull these values out of their hats. (Looking at the prices on some of Damien Hirst’s work, though, I think they sometimes do, but that’s another story.) What makes copies of Stieglitz’s original periodical so valuable? And let’s not forget that the original is not unique; each issue was printed several times and contained copies of photographs, not the originals.

In a time when copies could be made of the copies, why are these copies of the originals valuable at all? Could it be that electronic copies ain’t all they’re cracked up to be? Or could it be that the constantly shifting nature of electronic storage really makes hard copies even more valuable, and more worth saving? And while libraries could potentially make a lot of money selling their copies (a simple online search of library catalogs found more than 100 with original copies of Camera Work), they’re not, maybe because they realize they’d be selling their own future.