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Interview with John Warnock of Rare Book Room

john-warnockThis morning AbeBooks’ Reading Copy blog has an interview with John Warnock, the creator of the Rare Book Room. Not AbeBooks’ Rare Book Room, John’s rarebookroom.org is an independent website that displays some of the world’s rare books in all their glory – it really is a remarkable resource for anyone who loves collecting. I urge you to click through and browse the images of the books.

John tells the story of Rare Book Room in his own words….

“I started collecting rare books in 1986. We were visiting the Grosvenor House Antique Fair in London. My son pointed out a first English edition of Euclid’s Elements (John Dee, 1570) in the Magg’s Books Stall. Since I was trained as a mathematician, I decided that I REALLY needed that book. I bought the book, brought it home and put it on the bookshelf. Soon I discovered that the book looked weird by itself, and that it needed friends. This started the ever slippery slope of book collecting. I mostly collect the very best of science, philosophy, mathematics, medicine, history and a little literature. The Rare Book Room has some of my books under the “Warnock Library”.

“In 1995 (or so), a friend, Patrick Ames, and I thought it would be a good idea to scan rare books, make them into PDF files and sell them on CDs. The company was called “Octavo”. We contacted some of the great libraries with the following deal: We would digitally photograph the books at very high resolution, give them the scans, and have the right to offer the digital books to the public. We would also give them a percentage of the proceeds.

“This was a decent idea, but before its time. I was patient with this idea and let the company run for ten years. During that time they digitized about 400 books. In the end, there was no chance that the company would ever be profitable, and so I closed it down and became its only (non-paid) employee.

I took the scans (about 30,000 pages) and constructed “rarebookroom.org”. I continue to digitize books on my own, and I get books from Stanford (University), which they allow me to post.

Amazingly, the site gets about 3,000 visitors per day, and I get a steady stream of requests to publish select images from the books (which I allow for appropriate credit). Most referrals to the site come from Google and Wikipedia. I do all this because it has been an adventure, and because I get many messages from people who really like the site.

“One time I mentioned to the Librarian of Congress, that “the Library of Congress had a fire-hose of information going into it and a slow drip of information coming out. Wouldn’t it be great if that could change?”. My son Christopher started a company called “Ebrary” and they provide digital access to 100,000s of books electronically. I guess it runs in the family.”

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