Margaret and I were ambling into the office this morning, talking about her book Our Only Hope: More Than We Can Ask or Imagine (forthcoming from Pickwick Press, autumn 2013), when one of us casually referred to ‘books in print.’ Since we both have worked in bookstores and libraries at times, we shared a particular memory that will seem peculiar to young folks these days.
To wit: Once upon a time, kiddies, there was a book published every year whose title was Books In Print (it still is printed, evidently, though I can hardly imagine who would buy it now). It included what it said on the cover — the publication information for every book in the USA whose publisher had print copies available. If you wanted to track down a book for library use, or to order a copy of your own, you would go to Books In Print, find it by title or author, write down the publication information, and convey that data to a librarian or bookseller.
It was, as you may imagine, an unwieldy fat volume, with supplements published at regular intervals, but before digital databases and the Internet and Amazon, this was how we located copies of the books we wanted to read and buy. Nowadays the prospect of a print book which lists every book available defies imagination. Practically everything is in print one way or another; how would one encompass all the books from all the publishing entities in one book? The idea of having to go someplace and look something up in Books In Print (regular people didn’t ordinarily own copies, in my experience) rather than just looking at Amazon or WorldCat seems bizarre. And writing down publication data and carrying it, or mailing it, to the person from whom you wanted a copy….
Yet this was how your parents or grandparents used to deal with book acquisitions in the pre-Net world. Sometimes I’m amazed that we read as much as we did — but then, we weren’t distracted by Facebook.