I collect images. Physical ones, and virtual ones. I have stacks of illustrated children’s books, crime fiction dust jacketed books, Deco magazines and books, whatever grabs my eye and is pleasing, I want, no need, to keep. On flickr I have uploaded over 16,000 images. I used to be able to claim most came from my own personal physical collection, but that can’t be true anymore, not with friends, other collectors sharing with me, and most pointedly, my ability to download the internet’s vast treasure storehouse of images. I have begun to believe that every illustrated piece has been uploaded and is available on the internet somewhere. And it’s not like when I first started online–the images then were of poor quality–small with low dpi, and done on crappy scanners. Now there are library, university, museum, and personal blogs that share quality scanned illustrations like candy. I found an inexpensive edition of a title I didn’t know Edmund Dulac, a great Golden Age of Illustration artist, had published, Treasure Island. I was thrilled, I believed this was a little coup. If I didn’t know Dulac had done the artwork for this classic, probably no one else would either. So I spent time scanning, correcting, and uploading the 8 plates from my book, only to find on a fantastic blog a first edition, with 4 more plates than my dinky reprint has. My first thought- –why did I bother scanning? My second, why did I bother buying the book to begin with, if I could have viewed and downloaded all 12 from the internet? I don’t want to read Treasure Island, I bought it specifically for the illustrations, and to share them. And it hit me, that if I, me, who lives breathes and eats books was thinking I shouldn’t have spent money on a book because the illustrations to it are at my fingertips online, then what about other collectors of children’s or illustrated volumes? Do they think as I did? That there isn’t a need to own a certain volume if what you crave it for are illustrations that can be found, downloaded and printed–with exceptional quality as a result?
An extreme case in point–The Ship That Sailed to Mars, the rather rare title I wrote about some time ago I purchased with a small gift from my friend’s mother’s estate, is now available for viewing and downloading or using screen shots, at someone’s blog. Unheard of a few years ago. First, because to scan something like this you are risking damage. Second, there were only a few thousand ever printed, so to own one isn’t that common. My husband shot some photos of a few plates–no chance we’d try to scan. The photos are good, but certainly not as clear and straight as the pieces that were scanned and uploaded onto a person’s personal blog, being shared with the universe. I was thrilled to have such a rare treasure and tell my flickr pals–hey, here’s something you rarely see! Uh, Yeah.
Here’s a smaller example, one that I’m debating as I write this. I found a wonderful little illustrated children’s book on a site that is preserving and sharing public domain titles. People donate money and scanned books as projects to preserve these precious volumes forever. I love the idea, I love the execution of it, and I love finding fantastic illustrations I can add to my virtual shelf of illustrations. I posted a few of these illustrations on my flickr account, with proper attribution and links back to the site. But I love the illustrations so much, I’m considering buying a physical copy. But, do I need to? Do I need an original, well, not original, they are printed, after all. Is it necessary in this age of access to accumulate book upon book because they are in your hands, and not on a computer screen, or printed on some flimsy paper?
And an extension of this question is–does this way of thinking impact sales of common and rare illustrated volumes? Have used and rare book dealers noticed a drop off of sales within the last 5 years or so, that cannot be attributed to the economy? I know I always believed that if at all possible, I needed, needed, a real honest to god book with pages, type, and plates. A floating virtual picture of a coveted illustration just would not do. But I’m not so sure now.
In pondering the question, my best answer for myself is that a piece such as Kay Nielsen’s In Powder and Crinoline will always be desired–line drawings and tipped in plates cannot be substituted with downloads of the illustrations. The delicate lines, nuances this artist brought to his work can only be truely appreciated in person–and I’ve only been able to glimpse his art at book fairs. Chances are, I’ll never own a real copy, my budget does not extend that far. So, the next best thing is online access–the world would never have had a chance to view those plates not included in various compilations of his works if individuals hadn’t scanned and uploaded them. I’m thrilled I get to see them this way, rather than not at all. But if I suddenly won the lottery–boom–In Powder and Crinoline would be one of my first purchases!
Lesser books are a trickier problem for me. Budgets being what they are–should I spend on a book that I can see the illustrations any time for free, or hold off until I find something I think is less likely to be online? Problem is–there probably aren’t any books that can’t be found online! OK, that’s not a problem, at least not for people like me who crave illustration in all its forms, but is it one for the internet, or brick and mortar sellers? I suppose time, as usual, will tell.