Saturday, October 03, 2009

Images de la Gorgone

I'm trying to write a book on ancient coins depicting Medusa. To do a good job I need to read the other books on the subject and they can be hard to get.

I was especially interested in Images de la Gorgone (1985) by Irène Aghion and Evelyne Veljovic. It documents a 1985 exhibition by the Cabinet des Médailles of the Bibliothèque Nationale. That's the French national coin collection. The book isn't held in any of the usual places in New York. The ANS doesn't have a copy, nor the New York Public Library, nor NYU, nor Columbia. The nearest library copy I could locate is at Harvard, three hours away by car. I've never seen copies for sale and I've checked numismatic, book and eBay dealers.

The University of Michigan has a copy. They have a great service, MITS, that will photocopy articles and send them for a fee. They refused to copy Images! They are bound by US law ... they will only copy 100-year-old documents or documents registered with the Copyright Clearance Center. (If I was in the library myself they wouldn't bar me from using the machines.)

Next I tried the British Library. Same story. They cannot copy the book for me.

Eventually I found the book's entry at the Bibliothèque Nationale itself. Unlike the UofM and the British Library, getting photocopies from the BnF is a pain. I had to open an account, by mail — not email — request the book by mail, and pay with a euro-denominated money order by mail. It took about six months and cost about $80.

I assume the BnF realized that since they are the publishers they didn't have to be bound by copyright law.

This was a lot of work to obtain a photocopy of a recent rare book with a list price of 40 francs (about $7). The text is quite readable. The plates of my photocopy are muddy and difficult to see. I have no clue how good the original plates are.

This book is an example of an “orphan work.” Although I believe the authors are still alive and working for the BnF I couldn't figure out how to email them and didn't have the resources to track them down for permission.

Google's deal to get orphan works from libraries to readers failed. Folks on both sides of the discussion are talking about what should be done but what I'm reading is generalities. When you think about how society should handle orphan works, it's worthwhile to think of some specific examples like Images de la Gorgone. Suppose Google collected money on behalf of Aghion, Veljovic, and the BnF. How much could they expect to receive? I'd guess in all the world there is about $200 worth of interest in this book. I was about $80 interested in it, I'd guess 3 or 4 other people are that interested, maybe a a couple of dozen would be interested at $10 a copy.

No scheme in the world is going to get more money into the hands of the copyright holders.

In tomorrow's New York Times Book Review Lewis Hyde suggests that letting Google take a cut of the money would be like letting an executor drain an estate. He thinks the court should appoint a guardians to look for rights holders.

There is no money in 99% of orphan works. Most orphans are only worth a few dozen copies. That's the problem Google is trying to solve for five million orphans. Google wants to give researchers legal access to read truely rare books. The books that librarians and dealers consider ‘rare’ are books that are valuable. Those are the books on closed shelves in major libraries. Truely rare books are a bit more rare than that.

Recently a friend gave me John Yonge Akerman's Fourrès and forgeries: general observations on the coins and coinage of the Romans (1970). WorldCat reports exactly one copy of this book known. It's in Eastern Kentucky University Library. That's a rare book! It's not particularly interesting; it's just plate 14 and pages v-xix from Akerman's A descriptive catalogue of rare and unedited Roman coins (1834) plus a new photo plate by the publishers.

Do you want to see that book? You will have to go to Kentucky.


RJO said...

From orphaned books to orphaned museums, see "The Museum of Goats." Would some of the objects that had been stored there have been better off in private hands? They certainly wouldn't have been worse off.

Ed Snible said...

Thanks for that great link, RJO. “The 650 years old İlyas Bey Mosque and its complex were also turned into a barn, where the cows graze on the ancient Ottoman graves.Citizens are prohibited from seeing coins in museums but goats are free to pursue independent research!

John_Pennock said...

Very interesting commentary regarding rare books and was also fascinated to hear about you writing a book about Gorgons. I would love to see a bibliography of books you are researching for your writing. For example, I just picked up a Gorgon coin book by Calciati as a supplement to his impossible to acquire CNS opus. Is that on your reading list?

Ed Snible said...

John I didn't know you were looking for Calciati's book. A copy was auctioned on Wednesday. The estimate was 350 francs.

I don't think I read Calciati's Himera: le prime serie bronzee con Gorgoneion alla luce di recenti acquisizioni. Maybe I picked it up and it was in Italian? I don't know. One of the best books on Gorgon's is Jan Six's 1885 De Gorgone which I have a photocopy of but it's in Latin! The only recent book on gorgon coins is in Italian.

John_Pennock said...

Did you notice that the CNS example sold for 1000 CHF over a 250 CHF estimate? Like I said, it's not easy to acquire.

Ed Snible said...

I wonder why so few numismatic books are reprinted on the Kindle. It supposedly only takes a few seconds to publish from a Word document. Why are numismatic authors turning down all that free money by choosing not to reprint?