Laurence Worms, owner of Ash Rare Books since 1971 and past president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association, on a partnership that spans some 12 years.
The Antiquarian Booksellers Association (ABA) has long had a problem with the lack of training opportunities within the rare book trade. It is a trade comprised almost wholly of very small businesses, with only a handful of firms large enough to take on novices and train them up. Various educational initiatives have been tried over the years, but these were relatively short-lived and the problem remained.
When Simon Eliot, emeritus professor at the Institute of English Studies (IES), mooted a London Rare Books School (LRBS) along the lines of successful earlier American models, an invitation was extended to the ABA to send someone along to an exploratory discussion meeting. It fell to me to be that representative, with a specific remit of seeing whether the proposed LRBS might in some way address the ABA’s problems over training. We hammered out what courses we would like, where to publicise them, and who should teach them. The idea had immediate traction and before we knew it LRBS had become a reality.
It was at Professor Eliot’s insistence that, although the LRBS took place in an academic context, the book trade had a genuine part to play. Books could be talked about as articles of commerce in the abstract, but who better to understand their less obvious nuances than people who made a living from buying and selling them? And as the emphasis was to be on handling the material, rather than just talking about it, the possibility of involving bookshops could only be a bonus.
The courses, although intended to be of broad appeal, were at least to some extent devised in such a way that existing booksellers could profit from a week of specialist work – on bookbinding with Professor Nicholas Pickwoad, for example – or that would-be booksellers could accumulate over time a grounding in all the basics. Simon Eliot was also keen that at least one course each year should be taught wholly by booksellers, both to cement the relationship and to integrate the book trade into the core faculty.
It worked successfully and for the next 12 years or so, as well as often teaching on the maps course, I ran an annual LRBS course, principally with my colleague Angus O’Neill, either on the market in Modern First Editions or on the Modern Rare Book Trade as an entity. These proved as popular with rare book librarians as they were with would-be booksellers.
I recall that Angus and I were talking about provenance research one morning, when one of our students declared that she would love a whole week on that topic. The other students enthusiastically agreed, so we asked for a provenance research course to be laid on for next year. Run by Dr David Pearson, retired librarian and creator of the electronic database, the course has been a regular feature of LRBS ever since.
The real breakthrough in terms of partnership was in 2015 when we established a new module on the IES master’s programme in the History of the Book. This allowed students to spend 200 hours being mentored in the rare book trade as a formal part of their qualification. The scheme was an immediate success. It has already produced some outstanding young booksellers. Simon Eliot was right all along. Both the LRBS and the ABA gain greatly from their interaction.
Laurence Worms has owned and run Ash Rare Books since 1971 and is a past president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association. He has written and lectured extensively on the history of maps, and with Ashley Baynton-Williams is the co-author of British Map Engravers (2011). He taught annually at the London Rare Books School from 2007 to 2019.