Second-hand Science

Mears, William, Auction Catalogue (title page snippet) (1723)

 

 

 

 

 

Friday No. 8, November 30th, 2018

The early modern academic book is a used book. Of course new books were printed and put onthe market always and everywhere. But long is art, and life is short, and books frequently outlive their owners. In the 18th century this created a market which lived off second-, third-, fourth, x-th hand books which were sold and resold every so often: when their owners died, or when they were in especially dire need for money; when libraries where confiscated or scattered in war, revolution, or as punishment. And on the whole this market was rather larger than that for new books. The early modern printed book was a commodity made to endure and as such had a very long commercial lifecycle.

This is hardly a new insight, and a lot has already been said about used-book markets and practices (see the Book History and Print Culture Network). Now, apart from a few collectors who bought books just for the sake of collecting, most of these changes of hand of early modern academic books took place for reasons of research and teaching.They were bought because they were needed. Even though they were sold second-or-more-hand, these volumes were still costly items, and the average scholar did not buy them without good reason. So I may assume that if a book changed hands there possibly also was an intellectual reason behind this economic transaction.  

The Second-hand thesis

This means that ideas, notions, names and theories can not only travel openly by citationand quotation but also in a more hidden way along with the books they are contained in. In theory this opens new avenues for my quest to research processes of forgetting within science and learning, for the circulation of an author’s books might provide at least an indicator of his after-death impact.

Four first-hand problems

Practically this poses a whole bunch of new challenges to the project:

  • Figuring out how such indirect clues relate to direct ones and how they can be measured against each other. For it seems intuitively plausible that citing or quoting a scholar directly is stronger evidence of this scholar being structurally remembered than having a scholar’s book somewhere deep down in one’s library.
  • Coming to terms with indirect clues which can be directly referred to an individual person as well as indirect clues which are generic by their very nature. The difference is that of, say, the auction catalogue of a late owner’s library, which allows to ascribe the featured books to this owning individual, and the auction catalogue of the annual grand sale of a bookshop or store which gives no indication of the provenance of the volumes listed.
  • Accounting for the difference between books I know from such sources as the above-mentioned auction catalogues to have been offered for sale and books which I happen to know of being actually sold, and factoring this into the measure of ‘indirectness’ of the clue this gives me about the work in question being in circulation. Now this point mightseem to raise an issue a bit hair-splittingly, but it really poses a serious problem. Normally all that is left of such transactions are the auction catalogues some of which have survived – only a tiny fraction of those thereonce were, but that’s the same as with other sources. The problem is that these catalogues do allow me only to establish that at the time the sale was announced these books had been in the possession of the deceased or were in the possession of the offering entrepreneur. They normally do not allow to make any inference whether the books actually were sold at this event. Sometimes the catalogues carry annotations of certain items being underlined, check marked, or added prices which may point to someone at least being interested in buying them, but these are only very rarely conclusive evidence. So the question is, what happened to the leftovers? Were they sold off at a discount, given away, scrapped, recycled, or kept? For it would it certainly make a difference in estimating the value of an author’s name if the books announced under this name all sold highly after being battled over at the auction, or if they were all taken to the paper mill afterwards. (Which is quite unlikely unless indicated very clearly, to be honest, but to illustrate the possible spread let’s just assume it for the sake of argument).

    Mears 1723, p. 25

  • And, last but surely not least, how can the data to be drawn from the catalogues be integrated into my co-citation approach to the framing of bygone epistemic communities? For normally these catalogues do not just list some thousand books one after the other but structure their content in a manner accessible to the potential buyers, and that is, by formal criteria on the one hand (format, features, and condition) and by contextual criteria on the other hand, so that a rubric would read “Libri Miscellanei & Juridici, Octavo”[1]or “Theologici in quarto” for instance. But should I then add all other books from that rubric as being co-cited with, say, Johannes Braun’s “Vestitus sacerdotum Hebraeorum” of 1680 which might be found in the latter category?[2] This might seem an obvious choice, but unfortunately it is utterly impracticable because of the sheer number of entries I would have to process then. Should I, then, restrict myself to only recording those works appearing on the same page as, for instance, Adrien Reland’s “De religione mahomedica”, 2nd edition 1717[3] (see picture) as I would do for citations/quotations in a text? This might give a compromised picture because such rubrics tend to have an inner order – some reproducing that of the library’s former owner (which would be a good thing), some ordering the volumes alphabetically to facilitate browsing, or ranked by estimated value or anything else. So a consistent method might give me inconsistent results if I cannot process an amount of data large enough to even out such imbalances statistically.

So what to do now?

Already a while ago I tracked references to my protagonists in those auction cataloguesonline available via Eighteenth Century Collections Online. This provided me with a quite special sample because it is very much Britain-centred, but as the United Kingdom imported vast quantities of second-hand academic books from the continent during the 18th century, this is really not so bad at all. Here are the graphs for the frequencies I was able to establish for Adrien Reland and Johannes Braun through 81 catalogues between 1723 and 1796.

Reland’s books in the ECCO sample

Braun’s books in the ECCO sample

 

This surely looks nice, and it interestingly tells a story completely different (from what I know so far) from that told by the pattern of references to my protagonists in scholarly journals. To put it shortly, as the journal references decline, the mentions in auction catalogues rise. But what does that mean? Does it point to their ideas being in circulation through their circulating books even after they went out of fashion in the rather short-lived business of academic journalism? Or does it rather tell that as the authors went out of fashion in the journals, so did their books, being put on the second-hand market in something like a grand sell-out with a little delay?

This depends much on the answers I find to my four problems posed above, so I guess it’s fair to say that until now, this is still an open question. One hint might be that of the 81 relevant catalogues from between 1723-1796 I found, 56 may be counted as commercial, and 25 as owner-based (and 5 of these really are no sales catalogues but presence library catalogues and should only with care be included in the calculations). So what I have here is a very indirect picture – one that still has to be unravelled.


[1] Mears, William (seller): A catalogue of books in Greek, Latin, English, Italian, and French. Being a collection of trade, […] to be sold on Wednesday the 15th of this instant May, 1723, at W. Mear’s shop, the Lamb without Temple Bar; at Nine of the Clock in the Morning, [London]: n.p., [1723], p. 25.

[2] Johannes Braun: Bigdê kohanîm id est, Vestitus sacerdotum Hebræorum, sive Commentarius amplissimus in Exodi cap. XXVIII, ac XXIX. & Levit. cap. XVI., 2 vols., Leiden: Elzevier, Doude 1680.

[3] Adrien Reland: De religione mohammedica libri duo, 2 vols., 2nd enlarged edition, Utrecht: Broedelet 1717.


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