On Collecting | Collection Development | Organizing the Library | Cataloging | Cataloging Software | Conservation | Appraisals


Kurt Thometz as The Private Library has provided curatorial services to book collectors since 1980. These services include providing, arranging and cataloging books, database development, appraisal, bibliographic research, and conservation. Mr. Thometz's career as a private librarian has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Gentleman's Quarterly, Avenue, New York, Town and Country and Estelle Ellis' book, At Home With Books.

Amongst his clientele number some of Americas most discerning bibliophiles including Mrs. Vincent Astor, Mr. & Mrs. Leonard Lauder, Mr. & Mrs. Steven J. Ross, Diana Vreeland, Mr. & Mrs. Felix Rohatyn, Jerome Zipkin, Alan Pryce Jones, Mr. & Mrs. S.I. Newhouse, Mr. & Mrs. Donald Newhouse, Mr. & Mrs. Henry Grunwald, Molly Parnis, Michael Thomas, Mr. & Mrs. David Granger, Mr. Leslie Wexner, Fran Lebowitz, Senator Abe Ribicoff, Mr. & Mrs. Sid Bass, Dianne Von Furstenburg, Mr. and Mrs. Gustavo Cisneros, Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer.

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On Collecting

Style reveals the man. The building of a library is an act of style, an expression of what we are and a good measure of who we are. Collecting is an act of self-realization. One collects books and builds a library to create an intensified environment. It is a philosophical statement as this room is a reflection of our perception of the world.

In well appointed homes library space is precious and collections are highly prized reflections of the inhabitants interests, tastes, scope, and depth. In dicty sets Nancy Mitford's writings are as de rigueur as chintz, Enid Bagnold's autobiography still makes for after dinner conversation, and Proust, fraught with significance, read or unread, is an endless source of presumably refined speculation on society's motivations and recreations.

There are others who think themselves realists and won't sully their shelves with fiction or belles lettres. Science, history and politics adorn the shelves of their studies in chronologically categorized epochs, with specialized sections of technological tomes vie for footage in the stacks of reference essential to the practical intellectual.

To attract a collector a book must appeal to the eye, the mind or the imagination. There are those who consider books as objects: curios for the connoisseurs of bindings, investments when they belong to limited editions or are illustrated by fine artists. The fine bindings of the 17th and 18th century bring high prices more often for their jackets than to their content. Collectors of modern literature place a great deal of importance on the condition of the dust jacket, a sensibility alien to their English counterparts.

While it is an understatement to remind ourselves that a book is a visible act of communication and not just a thing, there is a need for truth that wants to know the origin of a thing in order to understand its nature. Books possess interiors much like the interiors of human beings. To many collectors, first editions possess a vital signature that justifies the time and expense involved in tracking down the illusive rarity. They have a symbolic validity that later editions just don't possess and possession is the distinction between the bibliophile and the bibliomaniac.

"The most profound enchantment for the collector," wrote Walter Benjamin, "is the locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed as the final thrill, the thrill of acquistion, passes over them."

Books appeal to the imagination are sometimes those which are made interesting on account of their associations. The famous "Sentimental Library" Dr. Rosenback acquired from Harry B. Smith is an outstanding example of what I mean. A great collection of conversation pieces: the Pickwick Dickens presented to his sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, whose death postponed the publication of Part XV because of the author's emotional collapse; the copy of Queen Mab Shelly gave to Mary Godwin inscribed, "You see, Mary, I have not forgotten you"; the copy of Shelly's Adonais, bound in vellum, presented to Joseph Severn with one of Severn's deathbed portraits of Keats pasted on the flyleaf.

One needn't be a bookseller or a scholar for books to become a passion. Reading is a powerful drug which occupies the minds of the most profound and the most superficial. The passion which excites and allows bibliophiles to distinguish themselves is collection. It encourages ambition and flights of fancy discouraged in a society in which the spirit of enterprise is limited to the marketplace and ideas are provided by the media.

The library is a sanctuary immune from the anxieties of the office, the mediocrities of the media, the trials and tribulations of domesticity. Reading one book takes us out of range, away from the daily routine, away from petty, cloying, responsibilities. In a room full of books, insulated and absorbed, it becomes possible to sit quietly by oneself and want for nothing; the library itself becomes that finer world within the world all look for and few find.

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Collection Development

In the early fifties the poet, novelist and editor Raymond Queneau circulated a pamphlet with an overview of the best books and authors. He asked 200 authors, 99 per cent French, to select their 100 top choices. Then he assembled the results and published a book called Pour Une Bibliothèque Idéale (Gallimard, 1956).

Fortunately, this information was unbeknownst to me when, early in my career as a private librarian, a well to do entertainment lawyer approached me with a similar undertaking. Would I help him collect the books he wanted to read but, due to professional and familial responsibilities, hadn't? His dream of impending retirement was a well shelved country house stocked with the best editions of just those books.

This was rather more along the line of Queneau's exercises in bibliographic style than most of the collection development I've been involved in. I say I was fortunate not to know Queneau's book of books then because the temptation to crib might have imbued our selection with other people's taste. Neither did we consult the Harvard Classics or anyone else's lifetime reading plan. I thought of it as co-authoring his auto-bibliography. We drew on his existing library, researched his interests, drew on the authorities, consulted the critical works and realized his idealized collection.

Who but a harried lawyer would take such an approach to collecting? Generally we're building on an existing collection. Large collections require coordination. For instance, the collector with eight thousand pieces on a single country with a relatively small bibliography asked us to find what he still didn't have. Mrs. Vreeland, curating her exhibition for the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the Belle Epoque, asked we not only acquire but read to her the best source material on Paris in that gilded age.

In the minority would be those whose motives have less to do with collecting than accumulating books as objects. At one extreme, the interior decorator's request for 53 feet of books bound in forest green. Books do furnish a room. At the other, the conspicuous consumption of a newly moneyed American entrepreneur who wished to give the impression of being titled and Oxford educated by purchasing rooms basically bound in crushed full morocco and gilt-tooled and gilt-ruled treed and speckled calf by masters like Bayntun of Bath, Morrell, Riviere, Zaehnsdorf and their like. It worked fairly well so long as no one asked any impertinent questions.

Inevitably, I am asked to supply anecdotes along this line by the same people who ask, incredulously, whether I've read all the books on my own shelves. What they're most disappointed to hear is that the vast majority of my books, like my clientele, are well read and that only a very few are there for effect. For example, my recently purchased, provocatively titled, A Guide to Sexing Chicks, by, Charles S. Gibbs. This is a veterinarian's, not a bachelor's, guide. Much as I enjoy having the book, I have no intention of ever reading it.

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Organizing the Library

A good library arrangement is not achieved at once, but is a slow growth through difficulties met and conquered. Unlike the strict arrangement the Dewey Decimal System imposes on an academic or professional library, a private library requires an attractive appearance as well as an order that can be intuited.

Imposing a coherent, cohesive and attractive order requires achieving a balance between practical and aesthetic concerns. Our first criteria is to bring the book closest to its purpose. Subjects are composed in natural order, alphabetically, chronologically, or by decimal. Their placement in the home or office lends definition to the rooms' function.

I think of the study with the tooled glove leather floors and 18th century Chinese day bed, where the shelves flanking the entryway reflected my clients interests in the interface between primitivism and modernism in acrostic. The silk bound Oriental folios surmounted the stout tomes on the ancient visual arts, segued through tribal, past folk, culminating midpoint, above the door, with the two volume slipcased Museum of Modern Art catalog, Primitivism and the Twentieth Century. To the right ran monographs of artists entertaining ideas of savagery; expressionists abstract and otherwise: Bacon, De Kooning, Dubuffet, Gorky, Lamm, Picasso, Pollock, etcetera and etceteras. The effect was in perfect harmony with the deep polished mahogany framing the suede walls and deep-slotted box shelves.

A good library is not dependent on such splendid accoutrements. My own sits on plain pine in the imaginary orders that careful study and scrutiny present. West African market literature and Igbo cultural history mixes with Brazilian pornography mixes with Colonial Baroque and Rococo ecclesiastical architecture and pairs with what I call Cubanity.

Reference works come more quickly to hand than Internet sites and skimming remains preferable to surfing for bringing to mind the fortuitous finds of serendipity. Webster's Second and the eleventh Britannica, The Oxford Companion to..., the London Times Atlas, and dictionaries to five languages look out on the garden in my quiet corner of Brooklyn.

Two years in this location and I'm continually refining it. Reorganizing a library frequently intensifies it. An old client who's recently reached saturation has decided rather than build more shelves to adopt my own solution to large accumulations in small spaces; to weed and replace what's peripheral with what's essential.

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It is not always advisable or necessary to attempt rigid classification upon the shelves. One good reason for this is that by so doing you are trying to do what can so much better be done by a catalog. Carlyle once said, 'A library is not worth anything without a catalog; it is a Polyphemus without any eye in his head, and you must confront the difficulties, whatever they may be, of making proper catalogues.'

The two most common reasons to catalog are to count and cross-reference a collection. All catalogs require the basics of bibliographical detail and inventory. How many of what and how much? Others require augmentation. The MARC records used by national libraries fall far short of our most thorough accountings. We augment the downloadable basics with the private collector's individual needs for accurate physical and financial description.

On site cataloging involves finding the existing record of the book, assigning it a residence, a room, a shelf location (The National Trust's system), sizing the book, categorizing it's cover, it's condition, a qualified description of condition when necessary, as well as subject, keywords, price paid (when known), and notes when deemed necessary by the cataloger.

Off site cataloging refines the entry. On line, we match our records with those of the thousands of libraries that are available to us over the Internet, principally the Library of Congress (which is 90% one stop shopping). Here our initial cataloging decisions are confirmed or edited, supplemented with exacting subject and keyword indexing, and complimented by the bibliographic expertise of authorities.

The resultant records make locating a book within the collection a simple task. Software can produce the shelf lists necessary to periodic inventory, to printing a catalog, to provide hard and fast facts regarding the books values when necessary for insurance of tax purposes, and brings books together not only by author or title but by subject and topic.

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The Special Librarian

A collection cataloged becomes an information resource. With the technological and workplace transformations that are taking place, special libraries and librarians are essential. They provide the critical edge for information based organizations by responding to knowledge needs.

The Private Library's competencies relate to our knowledge of information resources, access, technology, management and research, and the ability to use these areas of knowledge as a basis for providing library and information services. The Private Library supervises client collections by reading the core sources and key journals, developing the in-depth subject specialty required to build in-house library collections. The Private Library has expert knowledge of the market, knows the "best edition", the best resources in bibliography, has specialized subject knowledge appropriate to the interest of the client.

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Cataloging Software

The cost of the powerhouse cataloging systems of public libraries available from OCLC and Innovative Interfaces (in the range of $150,000.00 to $200,000.00) are disproportionate to the size of most library libraries and do not satisfy our needs. The clients' purpose in cataloging dictates our choice of database, from the most rudimentary DOS driven bare bones to a Colophon custom cataloging program with a secured web site, compatible with other online catalogs, capable of automated cataloging, and satisfying all a collector's needs now if not forever.

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The Private Library provides services and solutions to conserving your collection from the ravages of most environments. From climate control to conditioning fine bindings, our network of craftsmen and technicians can turn back the pages of time or project them into the digital future.

Condition reports appraise your needs so cost effective solutions can be found. Before a book is sent for restoration or rebinding we personally appraise the worthiness of the cause and proceed only when the book can not be found in better condition for a comparable price or association value exceeds market value.

Working with a range of talented binders and restorers, we place your material with the right person for the job.

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"Individuals with old books or manuscripts in their possession often wonder how to ascertain the value of such material. Unfortunately, there is no single reference work or "price guide" which can be relied upon to provide the current values of antiquarian books, nor is there any simple way to explain in a few words how such values are determined.

The value of a book is affected by a variety of factors, including the intrinsic importance of the work, its scarcity, and collectors' interest in it. In general, the books most sought after are great works in the humanities and sciences, usually in their first editions.

The value of a particular copy of any given book will be further affected by many other factors: its condition, its binding, its provenance, and the significance of any inscriptions it may contain. The evaluation of manuscript material, including letters and signatures of well-known people, involves still other considerations."
.........from the ABAA Membership Directory

The Private Library has made carefully written, well documented appraisals of books and libraries ranging from several hundred to over one million dollars to the satisfaction of both insurance companies and the Internal Revenue Service.

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On Collecting | Collection Development | Organizing the Library | Cataloging | Cataloging Software | Conservation | Appraisals

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