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Carving up the profits from second-hand books

by | Apr 20, 2022 | 0 comments


By Derek Law, Professor Emeritus, University of Strathclyde

In the years before Covid, when one attended the Charleston Conference in person, one of the joyful ways of relaxing from the intensity of the conference itself was to visit the wonderful local bookshops. My favourite was always Blue Bicycle Books, just two minutes up King Street from the Francis Marion Hotel. I fondly remember browsing there on one occasion and finding a copy of a naval history book which I had jointly edited on sale for ten dollars. I joked about this to the bookshop manager on the till. He asked me to sign the copy, trebled its price and in return gave me a 10% discount on two books I was going to buy anyway. Now that’s hospitality!

This is a longwinded way of saying that I am addicted to second-hand book buying with a collection of about 4000 books on naval history. And then in addition there are the novels and the poetry and the reference books and the professional literature and the miscellanea that one gradually accumulates. So one of my displacement activities during lockdown has been to re-catalogue my personal library and ruthlessly decide what I should dispose of. Some to charity shops, some to the wastebin and some sold on eBay. But last month a whole new possibility opened up to me – turning the books into artworks, specifically into carvings. 

The story goes back to 2012 when a series of book sculptures was left anonymously at a dozen cultural locations around Edinburgh by an anonymous artist now known as “Booksy” – a neat play on the name of the other anonymous graffiti artist “Banksy”. More sculptures followed which were found around other locations in Scotland over the next three years. The books used for the carvings were all by Scottish authors, such as Robert Louis Stevenson or Arthur Conan Doyle 

Book sculpture: Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island
Treasure Island, Photo by Chris Scott

The anonymous sculptress (for we know her gender if not her name) left notes saying that the sculptures were made from old books and were accompanied by gift labels which praised literacy and the love of words and argued against library and other arts funding cuts. My own favourite is probably a carving from J.M Barrie’s Peter Pan left at his birthplace in Kirriemuir, near my  own home town.

A picture containing text, indoor, table, wooden

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Peter Pan, Photo by Chris Scott

And then the story apparently came to an end, perhaps because the art form was never imitated, perhaps because taking a scalpel to a book feels more like an act of vandalism than an act of culture, quite apart from the fact that no matter how original and beautiful the sculpture it occupies more shelfspace than the original book!

But in February 2022, a decade after the first sculpture appeared, some five of them have reappeared with a heartwarming tale. Five of the sculptures had gone into the collection of the Scottish Book Trust which it transpires had commissioned them originally to mark the first ever Book Week Scotland in 2012. The elusive artist has sanctioned the sale of her intricate sculptures to help the Trust, which promotes the enjoyment of reading and the importance of literacy, in order to help fund its ambition to make books available to all. She said: “I always felt the sculptures were a poor attempt to communicate the transformative magic that happens when a book is read. I couldn’t be more delighted that by auctioning them off, they might be turned into real books.”

Marc Lambert, the CEO of the Trust, said: “Many children are growing up without access to books or owning their own books at home, and since the pandemic the situation has worsened. Without books, children are missing out and we know the impact of this lasts a lifetime. The works featured in these incredible creations all speak of magic, adventure, daring and Scotland’s vital place in the history of world literature.” The Trust has been working hard on fundraising during the pandemic but over Christmas it focused on giving books to families in need, distributing them through food banks, local authorities and other charities.

And the best bit of news comes last. The creations were valued with a starting bid of £800 and guide price of between £1,000 and £1,500 each. In the end they sold for £50,000. So Scotland, not content with giving the world J.M. Barrie and J.K Rowling (a.k.a. Peter Pan and Harry Potter), will now give its own children the books to spark their imagination, encourage their learning and increase their life chances. So instead of Never Never Land they will have a land of endless possibilities.

About the Author: Derek Law is Emeritus Professor of Informatics at the University of Strathclyde. He was chair of the JISC Advance Board until its closure in 2015 and has worked in several British universities and has published and spoken at conferences extensively. He is a regular project evaluator for the EU and has undertaken almost fifty institutional reviews. Most of his work has been to do with the development of networked resources in higher education and with the creation of national information policy and he has been PI on some twenty research projects. Recently he has worked on the future of academic information services. A committed internationalist he has been involved in projects and research in over forty countries and is a former Treasurer of IFLA. He was awarded the Barnard prize for contributions to Medical Informatics in 1993, Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1999, an honorary degree by the Sorbonne in 2000, the IFLA medal in 2003, Honorary Fellowship of CILIP in 2004 and was an OCLC Distinguished Scholar in 2006. He has taught at library schools in Australia, Malawi, Poland and at UCLA.


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