I’ve observed a somewhat unsettling uptick in the use of the “c” word lately. “Curator” once had a fairly secure, if perhaps not precisely fixed, definition, stemming from its original meaning in Middle English (couratour, n., legal guardian). In this sense a curator was a guardian, not just of a collection or an institution, but of culture: one whose job it was to narrate a path through our own artifactual effluvia, saving (or at least pointing out) what was best, discarding (whether literally or metaphorically) that which was not the best. As class-bound notions about what consitutes “best-ness” have shifted, so has the curator’s role, away from valuative declarations regarding “high” and “low” culture, and towards attempting to define that which most defines us — something closer to a tour guide than an arbiter of taste. In either case, to earn the right to be taken seriously while engaging in this practice, a curator was generally understood to be someone with deep learning, wide exposure to culture, and usually an advanced degree in the history and interpretation of whichever aspect of that culture he or she specialized in.
But with the increasing ease of access to audiences (or at least to the illusion of audiences) created by the internet, “curation” has taken on a somewhat slipperier meaning. Just as the blogosphere has democratized the notion of what constitutes “journalism,” so have on-line sites like Pinterest, Stumbleupon and Tumblr — to say nothing of a growing host of “curated” e-commerce sites selling everything from lampshades to high-heels — democratized our notion of what constitutes a “curator.” As fellow bookseller Maria Bustillos observed this morning in a column at Page-Turner, the New Yorker’s on-line book blog:
There’s been a lot of handwringing lately about “curation” (the original meaning of the word has morphed into something else entirely; maybe we still lack a needed word). It has come to signify sifting through the ever-increasing avalanche of “content” in order to identify the things that are worthiest of our attention, and bringing those things to an interested audience.
Well (in a sentiment Bustillos goes on to echo), fair enough. There is a lot of crap to wade through — more, these days, than ever before. But there’s also a whole lot of really cool stuff out there, much of it rather hard to find. What’s wrong with having dependable, well-informed tour guides pointing us towards things we might find interesting? And the capacity of the internet to facilitate the human instinct for forming associations and “affinity groups” makes it the perfect vehicle in which to take such a tour. Though I remain ambivalent about using the word “curation” to consecrate such a process — I think the French word bricolage better conveys the somewhat haphazard manner in which we construct meaning out of these random bits of bytes we stumble across in the ether — I’m willing to let it pass, if that’s where linguistic concensus is taking us.
What I’m not willing to let pass is the increasingly widespread conflation of “curation” with merchandising. If there’s one thing I’m pretty sure of, it’s that curators don’t make their living by making sales pitches. Nor are their choices about what to present or preserve, ignore or discard, based on anything as mercenary as their own pocketbooks. And most importantly, while curators certainly have and are aware of their audiences, they don’t choose their audience members on the basis of their ability to write a check.
I make my living buying and selling rare books, documents, and manuscripts. To the extent that I succeed at these tasks, I eat. I’ve been accused on more than one occasion of plying my trade in a “curatorial” manner — by which is meant, I suppose, that I lavish somewhat more care upon the description and presentation of the items I sell than has, perhaps, been traditional in my business (though I don’t believe this really to be true). It might also mean that I’ve spent much of my career selling things for which there has traditionally been only a very small audience, or no audience at all; and that I’ve succeeded because, through persistence and care, I’ve managed to make that audience bigger (I don’t believe this to be true, either). Or maybe it means that, by choosing a narrow field of knowledge and learning as much as I can about it, I’ve made myself into an acknowledged expert in my specialty (I know this not to be true, not even close). But whatever is meant, there’s this certainty: when I fail at my primary task, which is to sell something for more than what I paid for it, there’s no consolation in knowing that I did so in a curatorial manner.
Rare book dealers (or antique dealers, or art dealers, or anything else with the word “dealer” in the title) are no more curators than are used car salesmen. It’s above all a question of motive; and since I know my own motives better than anyone else’s, I’ll use myself as the example. To the extent that I’ve learned to present my merchandise (and that’s what it is – merchandise) attractively and with well-written descriptions, I’ve done so because, at some point, I perceived that doing so gave me a better chance of selling it. If I’ve succeeded in developing an audience (and “audience” is the wrong word — “market” is the right one) for what I sell, it’s been by figuring out, first, who has a functioning budget and, second, how to present my wares to them in a way they’ll understand (and the fact that ninety percent of my customers are institutional librarians in Special Collections tells you all you need to know about the breadth of my market). If I’ve gained some knowledge about my specialty, I can assure you it’s no more than is absolutely necessary to accomplish Task 1, above — like most booksellers, I’m the ultimate dilettante, my knowledge necessarily an inch deep and a mile wide, and I’m forever indebted to my more knowledgeable customers and colleagues for guidance and illumination.
All of which is to say that I do exactly what every bookseller (or art dealer, or real estate speculator, or car salesman) before me has ever done: I buy what I think I can sell; I find a customer to sell it to; and I sell it, hopefully for a profit. There are many ways to go about this — as a friend of mine in the business likes to say, there are as many ways to sell a book as there are booksellers — but one unavoidable imperative is that it needs to be done over and over and over again if one is to make a living at it. Which means that those who are best at this job are the ones who (1) have identified their market; (2) know just enough about their material to communicate its essence and its importance to that market; and (3) expend just the right amount of effort and no more in the process of selling it. This can range from the mega-listing penny-sellers on Amazon (who supply an ISBN and no more, and whose customers couldn’t care less) to someone like me, who on occasion has been known to spend a thousand words to catalogue a fifty-dollar item (never my proudest moment when it comes to that, incidentally).
So, much as some booksellers like to romanticize what we do (and gussy it up with words like “curating”), ours is really sort of a vulgar little profession. But vulgar isn’t bad. My father, before he died, called me “something between a street-singer and glorified rag-picker.” He meant it as a compliment — he liked both street-singers and rag-pickers — and his point was that there’s a fundamental honesty to this profession; one succeeds in it by using one’s wits and by sticking around; and if one is honest and good at it, the end result — a pretty song, recycled rags — is only good. Which gets me to my final point: vulgar or not, a lot of good comes out of what I — we — do. I may not be a real expert in my specialty, but out of necessity I know enough about it to find things of value. I may not be a full-fledged resident of the halls of academe, but I know my way around well enough to know where something I’ve bought might best reside, and (usually) what the fair price is that will get it from here to there. And much as it may pain me to admit it, I’m not a tremendous writer — but I write well enough to get the job done.
What I don’t do is curate. In the end, my decisions about what to catalog and what to discard are mercenary — they have nothing to do with cultural significance, and everything to do with my bottom line. Once I’ve chosen to catalog an item, what research I do, what I choose to say or not to say about it is driven not by curiosity (indeed, curiosity is the enemy!) but by the endless search for selling points. And once completed, my efforts will be directed, not to the anonymous internet bricoleur, but to someone I know has a checkbook and the will to use it. None of which is to say that my compatriots and I are devoid of curiosity, or that we expose every facet of our lives to this sort of reductionist logic, or that we have no appreciation for the cultural context out of which our inventory springs. Just that, to the degree that we succeed as booksellers, those are secondary not primary concerns.
So please, colleague booksellers, let’s put an end to this “curator” nonsense. What we do is good and important enough without pretending to a title to which we have no claim.