Before the days of the internet, librarians tended to feel that if they failed to acquire a book before it went out of print, it was a matter of pure chance whether they could subsequently add it to the collections. With the advent of databases such as Abebooks and Chapitre, the situation has changed. Of the approximately 50 reader recommendations we receive each month for French titles, perhaps 25% are for out-of-print items. Recommendations from our users about significant gaps in our holdings, with an indication of a vendor from whom we can buy the item, are particularly valued.
The downside, of course, is that although it is much easier than it was to fill gaps, such purchases impose ever greater strains on a shrinking budget. If we have missed a major exhibition catalogue or a specialist academic monograph, we may be able to find a copy, but sometimes at twice or three times the original list price. There is no substitute for acquiring material while it is still current.
Language specialists used to spend a significant percentage of their time working through secondhand catalogues. That happens much less often than it did, partly because language specialists have more and different claims upon their time, and partly because the volume of printed vendors' catalogues has drastically shrunk. But it is still sometimes a worthwhile activity.
Recent work on one such catalogue shows the value of this approach in developing the Library's collection. But it is a time-consuming business, and only worth while if one can be reasonably confident that the material won't have been sold to another customer. Being quick off the mark is essential.
In this particular case we acquired 21 of the 25 titles which we requested. These were solid mainstream academic titles, none of which were particularly expensive. Réflexions sur "Don Juan" de Molière by Jean-Marie Teyssier was present in 17 COPAC collections, but not in Cambridge. On the other hand, the National Library of Scotland was the only location for Raymond Bellour's Mademoiselle Guillotine : Cagliostro, Dumas, Oedipe et la Révolution française before Cambridge bought a copy for 11 euros.
Even more surprising, given the Library's specialism in Montaigne, Rousseau and Goethe, and the great richness of our collections, the catalogue yielded up a critical work on each of these authors. It was astonishing that we didn't have the 1992 Amherst conference Montaigne and the gods : the mythological key to the Essays. But such surprising discoveries, and the opportunity to plug gaps, are part of what makes the language specialist's job so satisfying.