As the pandemic spread and live book fair events shut down around the world, Virtual Book Fairs (VBF) offered a new way to buy and sell books online. At last count, there have been at least a couple dozen virtual fairs organized by IOBA, PBFA, Getman, ABAA, ABA (“Firsts”), SLAM and others. Judging from the variations in the organization of the different fairs, it is quite clear that there is a great deal of experimentation taking place, in the quest to find the optimal setup configuration. Dealers and organizers shuffled around with the number and type of books offered, adjusted the duration of the sale, permitted the addition of new items and so forth. These are the key, adjustable ingredients for a successful show, however, the optimal combination is not necessarily the best option for all three interested parties: organizers, dealers and collectors.

In theory, organizers are interested in two outcomes. First, to maximize earnings by allowing as many dealers as possible to participate, and secondly, to build up interest in attendance by keeping both the dealers and the collectors wanting to come back again and again. These two goals are in fact in conflict with each other. The first is directly related to the number of dealers participating, as well as the fee charged for attendance, while the second stands to benefit from having as small number of sellers selling to a large number of buyers (for the dealers), or a large number of books for sale available to a small number of buyers (for the collectors). While these theoretical scenarios consider only the quantity elements of supply and demand, the more optimal alternative must also consider the elements of quality, scarcity and pricing of the books available for sale. The latter are actually more important in attracting the buyers’ interests.

In practice, our Rare Book Sales Monitor (RBSM) has collected valuable information on the pricing of the offerings, as well as the sale prices of the items that sold. Participating dealers have had almost a year now to fine tune their exhibit approaches to these events, in regards to the selection, uniqueness, visual appeal of pictures and the written descriptions which should express a good story on the importance of the book. However, what the RBSM was able to determine, is that the most important factor to having a good show is pricing. This should come as no surprise since all collectors use pricing comparative information during these shows, which is readily available just a few clicks away.

The more upscale fairs such as those offered by the ABAA, have on average a higher price per item. As a result, the sell-through rates during these events tend to be below average. When comparing the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair, for example, which was in November of last year, to the corresponding California International Antiquarian from the first quarter of this year, we see a close to 17% increase in sell-through rates. In fact, the California ABAA show was a much more successful show overall. More items for sale sold at a higher average price, with a higher sell-through rate overall.

The 13.55% sell-through rate is still below the sell-through rates exhibited during other events, such as in those held on Getman’s platform. Shows that are shorter in duration, (day or so,) with less items for sale, do better on average for the participating dealers than those in shows that run for 3-4 days with the option to add more items during the last day of the show. Still, sell-through rates ranging from 50% to 75% are hard to reach for the majority of sellers.

Again, excluded from this analysis is a measure of the quality and uniqueness of the items offered for sale. However, it is safe to assume that while the quality and uniqueness varies from one item to the next, on average this variance is normalized without having significant impact on these comparisons of different configurations held on the same platform.

In conclusion, it seems that physical book fairs allow exhibitors to put hundreds of books on display for sale, while virtual book fairs have a limited display setting. When comparing the performance of standard virtual events with varied durations, numbers of items offered and average pricing, and using sell-through rate as the key measure of event effectiveness, the score is in the dealers’ favor in events with fewer days, less numbers of items, and lower prices. Upscale shows are outliers to this observation as shown by the two shows held by ABAA, where more items at a higher price performed better. Speculatively, the difference was not due to the quality or uniqueness of the books offered, but rather, the result of more collectors joining in the VBF trend after a longer than expected shutdown due to Covid-19.


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The Most Complicated Machine

by jim on April 5, 2021

The Analytical Engine

courtesy “The Guardian”

A universal notation with symbols employed that are few and simple enough, furnish the most important assistance in the design of the order and succession of the movements in a machine’s engine. This was the most important tool that Mr. Charles Babbage employed in his attempts to construct his celebrated calculating machines. In his own words: “to seek for some method by which I might, at a glance of the eye, select any particular part, and find at any given time its state of motion or rest, its relation to the motions of any other part of the machine, and, if necessary, trace back the sources of its movement through successive stages to the original moving power.” Babbage’s paper: On a method of expressing by signs the action of machinery, was first published in the Philosophical Transactions in the January 1826 issue.

Using the common eight day clock, and the hydraulic ram, Babbage introduced his notation to the scientific community. The eight day clock mechanical drawing used was made up of wheels, pins, revolving barrels, fusee, shafts, etc. His notation denoted engineering measurements of angular velocity, comparative angular velocity, the transmission of circular as well as a longitudinal motion, stiff friction, revolutions, repetitions, and others.

Babbage notation sourceBabbage notations











Babbage’s later designs attempted to show the separation of the memory (the ‘Store’) from the central processor (the ‘Mill’), and capture serial operations using a ‘fetch-execute cycle’ (the “Barrel Controllers”), with devices for inputting and outputting data and instructions (“Operation Cards”,”Variable Cards”).

Babbage began to construct a small difference engine circa 1819 and had completed it by 1822 (Difference Engine 0). He announced his invention in June of 1822, in a paper to the Royal Astronomical Society, entitled: Note on the application of machinery to the computation of astronomical and mathematical tables1. A copy of the offprint with the author’s inscription sold at a Christie’s auction below its estimate for $7,200 in 2005. At that time, OCLC cited another copy in existence at the Niedersachsische Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek. Like the central processing unit (CPU) in a modern computer, the mill would rely upon its own internal procedures, to be stored in the form of pegs inserted into rotating drums called “barrels”, to carry out some of the more complex instructions the user’s program specified.

Difference Engine

courtesy: Computer History Museum

Babbage’s first attempt at making the first Difference Engine fell through, but he shifted his innovation efforts to the design of a more complex machine called the Analytical Engine. The major innovation was that the Analytical Engine was to be programmed using punched cards and use features subsequently used in modern computers, including sequential control, branching and looping. The Engine was not a single physical machine, but rather a succession of designs that Babbage tinkered with until his death in 1871. He never published a detailed description of the Analytical Engine but in 1842, the Italian mathematician Luigi Federico Menabrea published a description of the engine in French, based on a lecture given by Babbage. In 1843, the description was translated into English and extensively annotated by Ada Lovelace, who had become interested in the engine eight years earlier. Her annotated translation has been called by many authorities the most important paper in the history of digital computing before modern times. Babbage considered this paper which is titled: Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage … with notes by the translator [Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace], a complete summary of the mathematical aspects of his machine, proving that analytical operations were capable of being executed by machinery. A copy of this offprint from Scientific Memoirs III (1843) London: Richard and John E. Taylor, sold for $78,000, double its estimate, at a Christie’s auction in 2005. OCLC and RLIN cited two copies of the offprint of Lovelace’s translation (both at Harvard University) with three additional copies in private hands.

The logical structure of the Analytical Engine was essentially the same as the one which dominated computer design in the computer age, during when the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator) was completed.  Babbage’s work however, has only in recent decades been studied in detail realizing the extent of his accomplishment. What may be the most remarkable aspect of Babbage’s monumental invention in thought and engineering, is the extent to which it was ignored. The limited production of original publications which document his work, coupled with the recent realization of the importance of his work, have become startling intellectual rare finds.

1 Dasgupta, Subrata (2014). It Began with Babbage: The Genesis of Computer Science. Oxford University Press. p. 22. ISBN 978-0-19-930943-6.

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The Importance of Translation Exemplified by the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese Literature

February 24, 2021
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The books that sinologists commonly refer to as the Four Great Classics of Chinese literature are: Dream of the Red Chamber, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Water Margin and Journey to the West. Their chronology spans from the Chinese Ming dynasty to the Qing Dynasty. The Water Margin and Romance of the Three Kingdoms […]

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Rare Book Sale Monitor update – 2020

January 21, 2021
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While much of the world has come to a stop at times during the pandemic, the rare book trade, confronted with challenges of its own, managed to finish the year without a major loss. It was, however, especially painful for rare book sellers – at least physically – who normally depend on in-store, in-person book […]

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Rare Book Sale Monitor update – Virtual in Boston

December 10, 2020
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Recently, book collectors, book dealers, auctioneers and book trade organizers, connected in three virtual spaces for the annual Rare Book Week, which usually take place in the month of November, in Boston. The new virtual platform settings had the obvious benefits of enhanced reach, scalability and cost-effectiveness, for the organizers, and the potential of boosting […]

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The Trade in the Middle of the Pandemic

October 31, 2020
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Aaah, it’s that wonderful time of the year when New England puts out its glorious foliage as billions of leaves change from green to a kaleidoscope of vibrant colors. The air is crisp and cool — perfect for hiking, and biking along back roads, where farm stands are piled high with crunchy apples and orange […]

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The Fourth Dimension of a Rare Book

October 14, 2020
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Many Russian artists supported the Revolution of 1917, which was led by Vladimir Lenin against the old Tzarist regime, and established the first communist government. They turned their talents to promoting the social justice they believed it would bring, through Suprematism, a new abstract style in Russian art, with roots in cubist and futurist systems […]

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Silent Spring, Silent Earth

September 7, 2020
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In 1962, the American marine biologist and natural history writer, Rachel Carson, published her seminal book, Silent Spring. Carson’s powerful and poetic writing was beautifully complemented by the detail-oriented drawings of American illustrators Lois and Louis Darling. Today, it is considered to be one of the most powerful natural history books ever written; the spark […]

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Islamic Libraries: A Short History

August 19, 2020
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This video highlights the early and spectacular development of public, semi-public, and private libraries in Islamic land between the 10th and the 18th century, from Spain to India and from Timbuktu to Sarajevo. A lecture by Laurent Ferri (Curator of pre-1800 Books and Manuscripts, Cornell University Library). Selected bibliography: ATIYEH, G. N. (ed.), The Book […]

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Speculative Fiction for the Future

July 17, 2020
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The future is here, the future is now. It was, in-part, imagined some years ago in science fiction novels, and prophesized by psychics, gurus and thinkers of sorts. If our recent experience is any indication, our future may lie in the conceptual, fantastical and slightly implausible worlds created by figments of our imaginations. With so […]

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