Samuel T. Freeman’s Catalog: Pros/Cons of CD vs. Print Version


Spring 2004 (Vol V, No. 1) Table of Contents

Written by: Stan Gorski
Special Collections Librarian
Paul J Gutman Library
Philadelphia University, Philadelphia, PA

Edited By: Ken Fermoyle

While many reference books are still printed on paper, digital products are omnipresent in today’s reference libraries. Many serial/journal/magazine indexes are now available either as CDs or web-based databases. Most libraries choose web-based versions of indexes due to the currency of the information, convenience to patrons, and no need for physical control of back files of CDs.

However, many reference tools are produced in a stand-alone CD format. For example, the Sweets architectural catalog set, published by McGraw Hill, is available as a CD. Accessible Archives Inc. (Malvern, PA) publishes a number of historical newspaper indexes only in CD format. Increasingly, a large number of academic books are packaged with CDs. All of Plunkett’s business texts include CDs, which include all the table and graph statistics from the text. This allows for further manipulation by the reader.

A number of magazines also produce CDs for special issues or articles. For example, Communication Arts presents its “best of the year” media projects on a CD included with the magazine and Émigré has included music CDs with its magazine. In fact, some magazines are including articles or images on CDs with each issue. A good example is VilleGiardini, an Italian architectural magazine. Except for the web-based journal indexes, all these products have been meet with varying degrees of acceptance.

An example of the quality of items offered in Freeman’s was a book of Three Stories… & Ten Poems, by Ernest Hemingway, Inscribed First Edition (Sold, September 18th, for $64,250). The inscription in Hemingway’s hand is shown here.

In this environment, I should not have been surprised when a local auction decided to make available the catalog for its rare book sale in a CD format. Samuel T. Freeman & Co. (1808 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103) is the major auction house in Philadelphia for antiques, paintings and various collectables. A descriptive book catalog is made available for each of the four rare book sales held a year. The lots in each of these auctions may range from $20 to $10,000 and occasionally higher. Freeman’s does charge a buyer’s commission of 17.5%.

So this past spring, subscribers to Freeman’s book auction catalog series received both a CD version and a printed copy of the catalog. The CD version included the same descriptions included in the printed catalog. The contents of the CD catalog were arranged exactly like the printed catalog. However, there was a controlled subject index that allowed the viewer to “jump” to specific subjects. Along with the CD, was a small pamphlet (about 30 pages), which included instructions, general auction information, and subscription order blank and sample entries with small color images. This pamphlet also included a more extensive index with appropriate lot numbers. Of course, the appropriateness of the various index terms is always a subjective decision.

Depending on one’s collecting interests, it is always possible to argue that the subject indexing could be more extensive or specific. In an ideal universe, you would be able to search for any word used in the title of an item, its description, and/or even subjects associated with the item. Of course, then there would be complaints on the number of false hits. Also this degree of subject indexing would probably be cost prohibitive.

The most obvious benefit of this format is the inclusion of more color images. Since it is less cumbersome and time consuming to transfer images directly from a digital camera to CD, the overall cost of production is much lower. And since color does not add to the cost, this allows for the inclusion of a greater number of color photos. The individual cost of the CD to the auction viewer was $15, which was cheaper than the cost of the printed catalog for the sale. While Freeman’s printed catalogs in the past may have included a few color images with about 20 black and white photographs, with the CD it was possible to present over 250 color images (585 lots in the sale). In fact, in sections devoted to autographs, maps, bindings, books with plates, it was possible to show an image of each lot described in that group. One minor problem was the small size of the images and that it was not possible to enlarge their size for closer inspection.

This format does raise the possibility of a cumulative file of auction catalogs and/or images of items sold. It would be possible to include all the catalogs for each year on a separate CD with a cumulative index. This product would be useful for pricing or identification. It would especially be helpful in showing the physical condition of the items sold. It would be more understandable to the book viewer why certain titles or items commanded their auction price with an image of the item available.

I had hoped that an updated CD with auction results would be made available after the sale. Understandably, considering postage and other costs, Freeman’s did not follow this path but made the auction results available through their website (www.freemansauction.com). I enjoyed viewing the CD and appreciated the large number of color images. However, in conversation with David Bloom (Freeman’s VP for books, prints & manuscripts), he stated that the response was mainly negative regarding the CD catalog and that the majority of collectors and dealers preferred a printed catalog to the CD. Their next book auction will be sold by using the traditional method of a printed catalog.

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