Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Occasional Imperfections

Philip Harvey

Two recent acquisitions to the Carmelite Library exemplify the growing problem of online purchasing of unsighted books and the racket, for want of a quainter word, in reprinted monographs that now seems to be gripping book agencies and polluting the in-trays of good libraries.

The first is the reprint of an important Dutch work of the early 16th century, a Carmelite account of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land that influenced the thinking of Saint John of the Cross. The book was written before 1539, the imprint in hand is Ghent, 1612. Well, actually, a small town in Tennessee this year if you check inside the back cover. This title is scarce as hen's teeth, which is why any copy at all will be ordered through a reputable online agency, and no agency is more reputable than the one we are talking about here. What we have is a book-on-demand, but demand is not what Acquisitions was doing when it asked for this. The late renaissance typeface is so blurred in places that whole words become smudges, with sentences like approaching thunder clouds. The magnifying glass is an important utensil in any library and will be essential in this case. The Library has acquired a crucial source work that it would not otherwise be able to provide, but the scholar will be walking into rough weather. The book will go into the collection and, to be fair, this particular reprint business publishes covering statements like this: "... we have chosen to reproduce this title even though it may possibly have occasional imperfections, such as missing and blurred pages, missing text, poor pictures, markings, dark backgrounds and other reproduction issues beyond our control." Buyer, beware! Even though the book was bought before being able to read the warning. Nor did the agency really indicate that it was a book-on-demand, it simply displayed it online as available for purchase.

The second is a history of certain hagiographers, written a century ago and not reprinted since 1922. Is this a necessary book to add to the collection? Yes. Do we expect an accurate printing of this 'rara avis'? Yes, as if we would expect anything less. The online agency would seem to promise that the text is word perfect. Upon arrival of the book, the reprint company advises on the verso of the that "we automated the typing, proof reading and design of this book using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software on a scanned copy of the original rare book." The results test one's ideas about recognition. For example, parts of the original that are obviously in Greek, Old Church Slavonic and Syriac script have been scanned, but the lettering reminds me of the more exciting moments in a Klingon monologue. Though I doubt if the text under discussion would meet the stringent standards of the Klingon Language Institute: The company says it has produced the book this way "to keep your cost as low as possible," but this book must not go into the Library as it is not an exact or even vaguely recognisable imitation of the original. It is not a reprint or facsimile. It is unusable. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker from a famous book review, this is not a book you put aside lightly, it is a book you hurl across the room with great force.

If this phenomenon becomes any more widespread, it is going to test the library world's confidence in quality reprinting. Books, any books in the public domain and outside copyright are simply being seized and reprinted by any business with the available technology. The results are often underwhelming, to say the least. Much of what is coming out in this form is a disservice to the authors, a danger to the scholarly community, and a waste of our collective resources.

Those practising their RDA skills will also be interested. Exhibit One is published in 2012 if you use AACR2, but 1612 if you use RDA. Notes fields in both sets of Rules will clarify any confusion. A second author is named on the cover who doesn't appear anywhere in any text inside the book. Unless I can find out who is he is I cannot even make a note, let alone an added author entry. Or can I? Who is he? Exhibit Two is published only in Milton Keynes, as there is no title page to inform you that it was originally published by the press of a reputable American university. It is unlikely that the press in question would have anything to do with the contents, as the Optical Character Recognition software has failed to scan much of the text in a language that even resembles grammatical English, let alone Greek, Syriac or good Old Church Slavonic.


Today, while searching an internationally respected book agency, I came across an exciting reprint for sale that included the following editorial review in the description.

Editorial Reviews
Product Description
This is an EXACT reproduction of a book published before 1923. This IS NOT an OCR'd book with strange characters, introduced typographical errors, and jumbled words. This book may have occasional imperfections such as missing or blurred pages, poor pictures, errant marks, etc. that were either part of the original artifact, or were introduced by the scanning process. We believe this work is culturally important, and despite the imperfections, have elected to bring it back into print as part of our continuing commitment to the preservation of printed works worldwide. We appreciate your understanding of the imperfections in the preservation process, and hope you enjoy this valuable book.

The Carmelite Library will not order this book.

At the risk of stating the obvious, permit me to make some observations about this Product Description.

What does 'EXACT reproduction' mean?

Notice how the seller is keen to assure us that the reprint has not been done using Optical Character Recognition (OCR), for reasons exactly similar to those I spelt out above in my description of an OCR book.

Are we meant to accept as standard the expectation that there may be 'occasional imperfections'?

Can we believe that the reprint company's prime concern is a 'continuing commitment to the preservation of printed works worldwide'? If this was their prime concern, wouldn't they be doing something better than this?

Why should the prospective buyer be placed in a position where they will (or must) have an 'understanding of the imperfections in the preservation process'? Shouldn't we expect 'perfection' as a basis for purchase?

What is 'valuable' about a book that is potentially useless and unusable?

I strongly encourage members to be on the lookout for such Product Descriptions on the databases of bookselling agencies and to make judicial reviews of the sale item accordingly, based on the inherent warnings.

1 comment:

  1. I once checked a few publications from some of these outfits (Kessinger Publishing, Nabu Press) and as far as I could see they were merely printing the optical scans made by Google Books. Their products, therefore, have all the errors and omissions for which GB is notorious. Those which claim to present OCR text, rather than mere optical scans, will generally be worse, for GB's OCR texts are uncorrected and often total gibberish, and it is doubtful that the publishers in question would put much effort into further correction and proof-reading. Unfortunately, it is difficult to know in advance what you're getting. I would be keeping a blacklist of these companies.

    Now there is Lightning Source, which claims to have 6 million titles ready for print-on-demand. The vast majority of these can only be public-domain scans which they download-on-demand. You can do that yourself much more cheaply without such a middle man.

    It seems futile, IMHO, for libraries to buy and shelve these printouts of electronic books unless there is some extraordinary reason. The readers of the future will not look for them in a library, but search for and download them directly, and print out their own hard copy if required.