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The IOBA Standard is the journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association and covers the book world, with a special focus on the online used, out-of-print, and collectible bookselling markets.


Using online-offerings by antiquarian booksellers in the library

Editor’s Note: Felix Stenert is a graduate student in Germany, and this article is a portion of his master’s thesis (we will probably have other applicable portions of his thesis in future Standard issues, with Felix’s permission). Felix is getting a degree in library science from Fachhochschule f|r das vffentliche Bibliothekswesen in Bonn (FhvBB) (University of Applied Sciences, Bonn/Germany) and he is writing his thesis on libraries using online bookshops and databases, and the advantages and possible risks to libraries in using them. I think this will give us online booksellers, in particular, important information about our business from the viewpoint of libraries and librarians and how to work with them. Footnotes and bibliographical references are available from Felix, at the email address above, if needed. Thank you, Felix, for allowing us to learn from your research!

Today there is a splendidly constructed choice of online-magazines and publications on the (antiquarian) book market, like the IOBA Standard, The Bookologist or the German Aus dem Antiquariat – Onlinemagazin für Antiquare und Büchersammler. There is also the Insider mailing list of, an often-attended forum for questions and suggestions in the world of books, collectors and booksellers.

All these publications are not limited to just the topic of antiquarian books and book-selling, but include a number of highly important things like history of books, distribution and printing, preservation of books and printed materials, book art and bibliography. All of these are things of interest not only for the bookseller, but also for the librarian.

A well-developed compilation and listing of antiquarian online-bookshops from all around the globe is available through the Bibliographischer Werkzeugkasten by the HBZ. The HBZ (Hochschulbibliothekszentrum) is the Online Utility and Service Center for Academic Libraries in North Rhine-Westphalia/Germany.

– Inquiry and order –

The internet brought a number of innovations and global contact by e-mail making international communication much more simple and much faster. But a number of libraries still use the traditional way of communication (by letter, by fax) to forward their orders to the bookshop or the library supplier – though the number of online orders or by e-mail is increasing in the last few years and is becoming more important. In a number of cases the order by a library is still an administrative act and all communication with the bookshop has to be in written or printed form, which excludes online-orders or orders by e-mails (or else they have to print hardcopy of all documents). Usually the library isn’t in a hurry when ordering; however, it might be a good deal to contact the seller by phone or e-mail when the librarian finds a rare and long-wanted book to have it reserved so that nobody else is able to buy the book in the meantime.

In looking for the different possibilities the search for old, out of prints and rare books that the new media opens, there will be unknown ways so far that we are not able to use them.

Most of the publications written and printed in the last several decades and centuries are simple to find through the main search opportunities of the individual book-platform and could be ordered in a direct and easy way. Especially smaller (special) libraries are the winners in the new ways that the online-business provides. In the past there were these printed catalogues, arranged by an author, title or subject and all entries of a number of catalogues had to be looked through and proofed, before you eventually found the wanted book. Today there is the easy, clean and comfortable possibility to search not only one seller, but also nationally and internationally. That indicates a combination of the acts of bibliographic verification and ordering in just one simple step.

The systematical search for special subjects without any precise interest in single titles or authors or without a knowledge of concrete books for your enquiry is still not as simple. The different offerings like subject- or free text-search, or browsing though categories still isn’t sufficient to find what you really want. Printed catalogues for special themes or subjects are often better and easier to handle – the results of the search are better and more precise. The browsing, one of the favourites of the layman, is not that important for a serious and professional search in the library.

Before a definite order there are several steps to do and, in a number of libraries, there is more than one catalogue to proof before the order will be placed. Not all of them are electronic or an OPAC (Online Public Access Catalogue), but also card and book form catalogues (especially for smaller or very old libraries). The traditional print catalogue is in this case the easiest way; you can write in it, make notes and give it to your colleague next door. On the other hand the internet gives the opportunity to search trough the stacks of bookshops around the globe, never editing catalogues or sending them to your library as in the past.

As the main search menus are easy to work with and catalogues of individual book sellers are combined at larger platforms or search machines like the BookFinder or AddAll, the librarian is able to react immediately on current acquisition requests or inquiries by customers of the library. At the same time you can check the desiderata list of non-available books and are able to close gaps in the libraries’ collections.

There are several antiquarian booksellers who search the OPACs of libraries and offer them books directly that are missing in the stacks of a (special subject) collection – but this will be only an exceptional case, only high-priced or rare books by an individual author or on a special subject will be offered that way.

Often an analysis or examination of the requests given by the libraries’ customers for the inter-library loan may show gaps or deficits in the local collection – and most of the requested books are still available at antiquarian bookshops.

While reading reviews or critics on new books there will may be mentioned past editions or books printed in the past (mostly out of print) which have a certain similarity to the now announced publication that are even better or will complement each other, with the planned new purchase. So it might be better to acquire the important work from the past in a used copy than to copy the new one – via the internet you will find the one you are looking for and will have details (bibliographic dates, availability, price) in just a few seconds.

Your search might not be completely successful at all, but there is often the chance to receive an offer for the wanted book when you put out a request on a billboard or want list. This is probably not successful in every case, but it’s often worth trying. Some of these boards are searched at regular times by automatic search robots or requests will be forwarded to a special subject book shop.

– Compare the prices! – A need? –

It’s a wonderful side effect of the online-bookshops with all these antiquarian books that you are now able to compare the prices in just a second. Even if your library is traditional and still orders from the printed catalogues received by mail, it’s enlightening and fun to compare the prices of different copies at different shops.

Almost all online-platforms for antiquarian books make it possible to sort the matching items by price – just to be right. This is definitely not a call for acquisitions as cheap as possible, though helpful in times of poor public budgets and stagnating or decreasing library budgets. But it’s an observation that the price for the same book in the identical edition and condition differs in a relation around 1 to 3, or even higher.

It’s not the inclination of libraries to buy the cheapest copy available; long-time business relations and trust between library and bookseller or a full-service procurer is certainly more important than a little savings. It is not worthwhile to invest time for a search just to find a copy a couple of pennies cheaper. But if there are noticeable differences between the prices – you have to use them, especially in times where public money is rare.

There is a special thing in the German speaking countries (Austria, Germany and Switzerland) not that known in the USA and the UK: price maintenance – one book : one price. There is only this one price for a new book at the shops, no discounts, no special price. The seller isn’t allowed to sell it below this price.

But it’s totally different in the second-hand or antiquarian market; the price will be calculated by the individual seller.

The customer hasn’t got this choice between all identical copies as it is the case by a new publication, a used book has its own characteristics like condition, edition, provenance, inscriptions, etc. Every older book is a kind of unique copy with its characteristics, and the prices will differ depending on these characteristics.

The internet brought a never-known high level of transparency and the possibility to compare (the price, the condition, the individual copy). Prices of a publication are visible at a single look, but this is not the end of the “mystery of the prices” and the large number of internet marketplaces for books is not the end for local bookshops and auctioneers.

The seller with high-end prices now will have some problems to sell ordinary or regular items at the best prices. There might be a tendency to decrease the high prices and to increase the lower ones, building an average price for a book – and the bookshop in the middle of nowhere now definitely knows how to price a book, even if he has no shop on Madison or Park Avenue as through the internet he is able to contact customers nearly every place on earth.

In the market for old and very rare books, for exclusive copies and collectors’ items, the prices may not differ that much or that blatantly, but it’s worthwhile to compare, even for books worth a couple of thousands.

It is significant to see how many sellers react on catchwords like “first edition,” “signed,” “with a print,” “collectors’ edition” and include these words in their descriptions – while regularly posting a higher price for same. Often it’s no odds it’s really a scarce item; the first edition might be the only edition or all copies of a publication may be signed, so it’s hard to understand why you’d want to pay a price two or three times higher than a cheaper offer.

Let’s see one example :

  1. Richter, Gerhard:

  2. Abstraktes Bild 825-II : 69 Details. – Frankfurt am Main/Leipzig : Insel, 1996. -(Insel-Bücherei ; 1166). – ISBN 3-458-16820-6.

  3. This little volume by the renowned German painter Gerhard Richter (celebrated at the occasion of his 70th birthday in 2002 with a large retrospective exhibition touring through the US) was published in a unique signed and numbered edition of 1,000 copies. All copies are further dedicated by Richter as “Für Elise” – it was published in 1996 for DM 148.00 (€ 75.67).

  4. I searched at several book marketplaces like,, and the price was in a range from € 76.00 to € 230.00 (US-$ 265.95), so from around the original publisher price to triple that.

  5. This book has three “problems”: 1. famous and high-paid author and artist (Gerhard Richter), 2. published in a unique edition (signed, dedicated, limited) and 3. collected series (Insel-Bücherei).

  6. number of collectors’ editions and signed special editions are bought by booksellers and remain in their storage, and when the publication is no longer available at the “first market” the only chance for the collector is to buy it at a higher price.

On the other hand, there are books that are not available at the bookshops; this does not make them “rare” or “scarce;” maybe there are just no interested customers or the subject seems to be quite unattractive. In the worst case a book not available through the large search engines is just trash nobody looking for.

While you are often able to find a lower price at antiquarian bookshops, a few years after printing, a number of monographs, fictional books and exhibition catalogues, other things like reference literature, catalogue raisonnés or collectors’ edition will become more and more valuable in this time and mostly unavailable at their original publishers price (in best condition).

Even if the library does not use all the possibilities of the online-bookshops for used and rare books and still orders from printed catalogues and lists, take a look into one or two internet-resources and do a critical comparison of prices.

Especially on the occasions of larger acquisitions (like collections) or expensive single works, it’s a kind of need to make yourself familiar with the market and its prices. And don’t forget the auctions; a number of titles could be better and even cheaper bought at auctions than in a bookshop with fixed prices. It’s the responsibility of the librarian to use the financial resources in an adequate way and to hesitate before paying too high pricing. Saved money can be used for further acquisitions.

A number of libraries regularly receive gifts from the customers or from the public audience and some of them include scarce and rare books (most of it is just used paper and trash!). Not all of these books will enter the library’s stacks, as they are still in the library, they are old-fashioned and obsolete, or their subject matter does not fit the library and its audience.

So the library might try to sell the better ones to a bookseller to raise money for the library (the other books may enter a charity sale or a flea market). The internet helps to find (special) shops who will acquire the books and helps to estimate the rare and scarce items between them – but it has to be clear that we will get only a part of the final price at the bookshops.

In difference to the acquisition of new books by libraries only a very few sellers of used, out-of-print and rare books have special discounts for institutional customers such as libraries. But a number of libraries order regularly and for higher sums and they are considered as reliable customers with good payment behaviour, and as with other booksellers ordering, many sellers give a special colleague discount at 5 to 15 percent. If the books are ordered directly from the shops and not via a platform like Abebooks or ZVAB, the shops don’t have to pay fees for the sale, so they might give a discount for larger orders. The library has to ask for a discount and the seller should give it – support your customers, support the library!

– Online use for bibliographic checking – No library will give priority to information or dates from bookseller listings or antiquarian platforms on bibliographic checking; there are the catalogues from the most important libraries on earth (Library of Congress, British Library and all the others) available online – most of them with an national library or national bibliographic character). The choice is wide and they will be used first.

But from time to time there is this observation: that you have a book, the actual publication, in your hands and you aren’t able to find a single listing at any library (even the biggest and most important ones) at all.

Especially for non-book trade publications never seen at the bookshops it may be hard to find a library, although this object is cited in a text or is included in an important bibliography. Even with very poor details and only a little endurance you have the chance to find it with a free text search at one of the bookshops. I was looking for a Jasper Johns catalogue published by a New York Gallery in 1989 and found no entry at any library on both sides of the ocean, but it was quite easy to find a copy through BookFinder and Abebooks.

– To borrow or to buy : The inter-library loan – If you take a look through the order requests for the inter-library loan by the libraries, customers might find a special interest in subjects or titles where the local library can not totally satisfy or locate a gap into your local collection. And most of the relevant books and papers printed in the last 200 years will be easily available for acquisition in the book shops.

And there is still another opportunity to use the antiquarian online-catalogues in the inter-library loan, more a “buy” than a “borrow.”

Although the fees for inter-library loans are not very high, the internal costs for this service are expensive (too high). On the other hand, a number of clients using this service will also pay a little more to hold the book (and not have to return it after a couple of weeks) – so they will buy instead of borrow. Books published after WW2 are mostly available at a reasonable price. This will not only save human resources in the library, but make a number of people very happy, when they can hold a long-wanted books in their hands–maybe a picture book from the time of their childhood–and it’s theirs, they don’t have to return it! It’s so easy to order, but so many people don’t know anything about the today’s possibilities in online-bookshops, so the librarian will order a copy for them at the information desk and the library-client will receive the book and the invoice just a few days later by mail – or you just give them advice and they will order independently on their own.

– From the virtual basket to the actual parcel: Order and delivery – If any matching titles were found during a book search that the library wants to order for its collection, the possibilities to order are different: to order online or to order offline (letter, fax, etc.). Some online bookshops have an option to print an order slip ( does it). In many libraries any order has to be documented separately and step by step, so they need a written order beside the invoice papers; they print the e-mails or save them into their electronic systems.

It’s still a problem to give the payment details in e-mail or online order windows as it’s not 100 percent secure and most of the German or European libraries are not able to pay by credit card or automatic bank debit. Sometimes a registration is needed to order a first time, which is definitely okay, as it prevents the library and the seller from fraudulent use (packets never ordered and other things) – a single registration for the library seems the best way, with a contact to the acquisition department.

Most bookshops in Germany will send the books without any further notice by invoice to the library, and in contrast to some online sellers, they charge postage – the German will deliver all new books and other orders Euro 20 and up without any postage charging. Most sellers will use the cheap book or media rate postage, heavier things by small parcel or packet. The German postal service gives insurance for all parcels up to Euro 500 and just for the very rare and expensive works is it necessary to insure separately.

Only very few sellers use other services like postal; some (but not many) use UPS or similar German firms.

Orders from overseas sellers are no problem at all, but details like payment and rates of shipment have to be clear, and it is no problem to contact the shop by e-mail, fax or phone. But the postage for larger and heavier works ordered abroad or overseas are high; often the charges and fees are higher than the actual book.

Especially when ordering from the USA, Canada and Australia, the library must decide whether it wants airmail or surface mail shipment. For large and heavy orders, the M-bag is a wonderful alternative way to send books overseas, but good wrapping is necessary. High valued items have to be documented and insured. For a single book ordered in the USA the charges between air and surface mail differ only a very little bit: The “Flat Rate Envelope” for global priority mail by the USPS (United States Postal Service) allows sending up to four lbs. at $9.00.

In any case, a written (typed or printed) invoice is essential and an email is not a full substitute for that; the invoice is the most important document in the libraries administration! There are sellers who send books without any invoice, just including a delivery note without the individual book price or the postage – e.g. Alibris never includes an invoice! Also a handwritten note on a post-it-sheet saying “Thanks a lot” is not the paperwork libraries need. Some sellers will send invoice and books separately, which is okay since all invoiced books will be send in one parcel.

The total absence of any papers, no delivery note and no invoice is additionally a problem for the library when the books were ordered abroad and customs will open the parcel…

– clearing and payment (the problem of credit cards at libraries) – In the business connections between bookseller and library the clearing by invoice is the most usual way, as only a very few libraries can accept a payment requirement of cash in advance or automatic bank debit.

Some shops regularly only accept orders by bank debit (like the German Zweitausendeins, ); others have a special and exceptional service for libraries, allowing libraries to pay by invoice.

In the beginning of e-commerce there were a number of firms that did not allow any invoicing; nowadays most of them will ship this way (for private as institutional customers).

Most orders done in Germany will be sent with an invoice without any question. Sometimes you have to ask if the seller accepts new or unknown clients or requires payment in advance. A lot of booksellers in central Europe, like Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands, also have German bank accounts, as Germany is the most important market in Europe, so there will be no problem with paying in such cases. Only occasionally will the library will be asked for any references and a deposit is not usually required or perhaps maybe only on rare high-priced items. But normally no such payment is needed.

But there is still the problem with orders from the non-German speaking countries and from overseas: most of these transactions will require a credit card. I’m not really familiar with the situation of US libraries, but only a very few German libraries have a credit card to order books.

On the other side, there are a lot of interesting things on the American continent and important acquisitions to fill blatant gaps in collections. The usage of private credit cards by members of the libraries staff isn’t a satisfying alternative way. There are only a few of the larger sellers in the US with a German account, as they are also participating at German fairs and shows. Lame Duck Books and Arslibri, both housed at Boston, have this arrangement.

An international bank transfer will be used from time to time. It takes a long time and the fees are quite high, however. It may be a way for larger or important orders, but no library will order an ordinary book this way.

Other kinds of payment like cash on delivery (COD) aren’t used in the practise.

In the last few years, more and more libraries in private hands (firms, etc.) and foundations as well as some public institutions, received credit cards to use responsibly for their orders and acquisitions programs.

Special transfer payments offered by book platforms to individual sellers, as does, are not available for libraries.

Let’s hope that there will be other ways of e-payment and more credit cards available at libraries in the future.

– A resume – Today there are a number of ways to use the online databases of the antiquarian booksellers for libraries.

The search for special authors or title will be so much easier than the “look-though-the-printed-catalogues-method.” Mostly you can now find a matching item in a few seconds. In the past you had to look through stacks of catalogues or ask booksellers – now you will save a lot of time.

The weak point at almost all online bookshops (for new as well as for used) is the search for individual subjects or thematical interests; the number of matching titles by browsing through categories is too large and is not satisfying, as a large part of listed titles is not relevant at all. Here some more future innovations are needed to make the subject or special interest search easier and more convenient – but this is a problem with most library-OPACs, too.

The enormously high number of individual books and titles in just one pool opens new ways of acquiring books – the chance to find a wanted book are higher than before, and now you can compare several copies of different sellers in condition and price.

Every library has to express its own criteria for acquisition, i.e., whether to buy from the cheapest seller, from the well-known seller with a long serious business contact, or on other points.

The bookshops will be used in the daily work and service of the library to acquire books, but also to find bibliographic dates and at the information and reference desk.

The term “out of print” and “unavailable or no longer available” has changed into “available in a used copy” or “look at the antiquarian seller,” so knowledge about the most important places on the internet for books is a need and a must for all librarians, in the public libraries as well as in the research library!

It’s hard to define the future for the antiquarian book market, but also for a number of years the classic store will be there, the collector will look trough the stacks, will touch the volumes, look at the binding and browse through the pages, not touched for a couple of years. Most of them are not interested in special titles, but just love books – the old school bibliophile.

The internet will be a second and very easy way for the seller to offer his books to millions of people throughout the world and the individual customer will find most of the books he is looking for.

But the internet business will not be the only way or the solution; scarcely a seller will offer rare and very rare offerings through the web. The most important works will never be sold online, as the customer will still want to feel it with his own hands and see it with his own eyes before he will pay a cent!

And it’s hard to imagine seeing a multi-thousand dollar book just beside a penny-priced novel paperback – but you will find them in the internet: books for a single cent and books with a five digit price. Some of the sellers have serious problems with putting their important books into this virtual flea market… and they are right. Special platforms are needed for special (rare, signed, collectors’ edition, etc.) books – and may be examples for a higher than the average market.

At libraries and at bookshops the future won’t be either classic style or virtual, but will be “as well as.” Only the combination and close connection of both ways, of old and new, will be the future!


About the author Felix Stenert, 25, is a librarian. He studied at the Fachhochschule für das öffentliche Bibliothekswesen Bonn (University of Library Sciences, Bonn/Germany). This text is an excerpt from his diploma thesis. The complete text is currently available only in German. Comments and suggestions are always welcome at




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