Collector Profile: Tim Spalding
We had the chance to talk with Tim Spalding, founder of the book lovers' web site LibraryThing, about his extraordinary collection.
What sort of books do you collect?
I buy widely—history, languages, politics, graphic design, computer books—but the most coherent section is my Greek and Latin texts. Many of these are from the big series—the blue Oxford Classical Texts, the orange Teubners and those bilingual red and green Loebs. My favorites, however, are 19th century editions from lesser-known publishers—texts, often school books, from when Greek and Latin were still central to intellectual life, and the cannon was different and somewhat broader. School kids used to read a lot of "bad" Latin, like Nepos and Justin. They read Xenophon's fanciful Education of Cyrus, not his boring Anabasis. I even have a school edition of Palaephatus' On Incredible Tales, a text and author now barely known to professional classicists. I also love "pocket editions." Apart from the mid-sized Loebs, today's Greek and Latin texts are all big and important!
How did you get started with your collection?
My family had too many books, and gave them copiously at Christmas. One year, the "stocking" ended with a string that led to a brown paper shopping bag of used books, one bag for each of us. And that was just to kick things off!
How many books do you have in your collection?
I think it's about 3,000, split between Portland, ME and—I am ashamed to admit—my parents' house. I despair of ever having it all together again. Marrying an author who once worked for a book store didn't help. Now we *both* have books at our parents'.
What is your most important/favorite book in your collection?
I love books with a history, and always look for marginalia. I have a shirt-pocket sized 19th century edition of Homer filled with animal doodles. I have a school text of Demosthenes, that a middling student slogged through in 1866, glossing every word and insulting his classmates and "his accidency Andrew Johnson." I have an edition of Nepos signed, or rather curlicued, by one James Straphy, 1763. It looks like it's been stomped on, shot out of a cannon, attacked with acid, and then bound back up with loving care.
What tips or advice do you have for people who would like to start a book collection?
First, care about acid-free paper. It's depressing, but all the paperbacks I bought in college are sliding toward a crispy yellow death. Second, come to grips with how the technology will change your book- reading. I've got all of Greek Literature on a CD-ROM. In a few years almost everything published before 1923 and much of what came after will be available for free online in an attractive and searchable format. How will that change what you want on your shelves? I don't think this will necessarily mean less book buying, but it will change what people buy and how they use their books.
How & where do you store you books?
Greek and Latin each get one of those beautiful lawyers' cases—the ones with the glass fronts. The rest are on bowing Staples shelves, often double-racked, or in piles. I should take better care of them, I know.
What is the craziest/strangest thing you’ve done to get a book you wanted for your collection?
My method is crazy: buy at a whim and never, ever alienate a book. But I don't scheme. I have, however, tried vainly to get a furniture store to part with some books it was using as decoration.
Are there websites you use to talk to other people about your collection?
Actually, I created the popular "social book cataloging" website LibraryThing.com. The idea is simple: You enter an ISBN, a title or a keyword, and it picks up the rest from Amazon, the Library of Congress or over 30 libraries around the world. Deweys, LC Call Numbers and MARC Records are all available. Once you've entered some books, the system points you to other users with eerily similar tastes. You can start a conversation with them or just browse their libraries to get ideas. The system also generates great automatic recommendations; it turns out "people who OWN X also own Y" can be more interesting than "people who BOUGHT X also bought Y." I had cataloged my books one way or another since childhood, and making LibraryThing was a dream for a few years before I went ahead with it. I barely hoped that it would eventually repay the month of programming it took to launch the basic service, but it took off beyond my wildest dreams. Since starting on August 29, 2005, 25,000 LibraryThing members have added over 1.8 million books.