Ancient books hold their own at 'multimedia' fair

7th October 2010, Comments 0 comments

Far from the headspinning wizardry and talk of multimedia and ebooks at the world's biggest book fair, the pavilion of rare and antique books stands apart as an oasis of calm, with not an iPad in sight.

Here, visitors leaf reverently through treasures such as a first edition of Charles Darwin's "Origin of Species", a beautifully illustrated 13th century bible or original equations scribbled by Albert Einstein.

For the first time, the "antiquariat", as it is known, has its own separate home at the Frankfurt Book Fair, a world away from the hubbub of the main show, with its high-tech displays, snazzy presentations and frantic deal-making.

The pace here is a little slower. "I even sold a book yesterday," beams Marc Daniel Kretzer, 30, from the Antiquariat Kretzer, which sells ancient theological texts.

"It is an early Catholic text dating from 1768," he said, carefully thumbing through dense Latin text in an exquisitely bound volume.

Slices of history like this, however, do not come cheap. Kretzer's volume sold for 480 euros (670 dollars). The asking price for a first edition of an early illustrated Spanish map of Europe dating from 1588 is 85,000 euros.

Despite the price, Kretzer says he can't complain about business. "Most of our customers are pastors, teachers, libraries and these are all publicly funded, so the recession doesn't really affect our business," he told AFP.

But even in the musty sanctuary of the antique book tent, there is no escape from the subject of digitalisation and ebooks that has so dominated the 62nd edition of the fair.

"Like everyone else in the industry, we don't really know how digital will affect us. If all the books which have ever been printed get digitalised, then it could have an impact," said Kretzer.

Dan Burnstone, from ProQuest, is trying to do exactly that. His company has launched a project that aims to get all early European books printed between 1475 and 1700 online.

"We don't know how many books we are ultimately dealing with, but we think it's something like one million," said Burnstone during a high-tech presentation in the main fair halls.

"Our plan is to digitalise the holdings of several European libraries over several years."

The project requires the laborious and time-consuming scanning of valuable and ancient books from libraries across the continent.

In November, some 4,000 books from before 1600 housed at Florence library in Italy will be published online, including some central texts of the Renaissance and books owned by the astronomer Galileo Galilei.

Moritz Backhaus, 30, from the Antiquariat im Hufelandhaus book firm, was sanguine about the impact of the digital revolution on his business.

"Look, the people who buy my books are not really interested in ebooks."

"People who are interested in the book itself can probably find a digital copy on Google Books. But if you're a collector, you need to have the physical copy," he added.

Nevertheless, he acknowledged somewhat sheepishly: "We don't sell very much at the fair. To be honest, we do most of our business on the Internet."

Kretzer was keen to draw the positives from the clash of the 13th and 21st centuries.

"Collectors can see the quality of the book online and then come to us to buy the physical copy," he said.

"You simply can't replicate the character of an old book in an ebook," he added, lovingly flicking through a volume more than 300 years old.

"And at the end of the day, people don't actually read these books," he laughed, pointing to the illegible spidery writing -- in Latin.

© 2010 AFP

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