Antarctica is for several reasons an interesting and enticing field for the collector. The region has fascinated people for centuries. Originally this fascination concerned the existence, nature and extent of the great southern continent. Later, as geographical knowledge increased, the focus changed to one of fascination with the forces of nature and the battles of explorers to overcome the dangers and hardships inherent in such a harsh environment. For the explorer there was the challenge in pitting himself against unusual odds and proving himself, all the while making scientific observations under some of the harshest conditions on the planet. For the armchair traveller, what could be more exciting than to read the accounts of such heroism, sacrifice, triumph and disaster? For the book collector there are additional advantages: with no indigenous human population and a restricted range of plant and animal species, the region does not have the vast volume of literature relating to anthropology, politics, military adventures, industrial affairs and all the other human activities characteristic of most other parts of the world; and the natural history and scientific data are likewise restricted by comparison with, say, tropical Africa. This means that the total volume of material is much more manageable and a comprehensive collection can be assembled in one lifetime. In addition, so far at least, most of the material is quite modestly priced, with only a few items in the multi-thousand dollar range.
But perhaps the deciding factor in its appeal is the fortunate coincidence in time of the technology of book production with the "heroic period" of exploration. The technology of exploration was not too advanced (though advances were being made and new equipment and methods being tried - all adding to the interest), so that explorers relied on their own resources and ingenuity in a way hardly imaginable today when we remember that most of the early exploration was carried out without radio or other means of communication. By contrast, the technologies of book production were reaching their zenith. The techniques of photography were well developed and it is fortunate that skilled and inventive photographers were present on many of the expeditions. The time-honoured skills of draughtsmanship were however not yet dead, and methods of reproducing the original artwork for publication were highly developed but not yet mechanised, so accounts of the Antarctic have the best of both worlds and are amongst the best illustrated of all travel narratives. The period of major exploration (the "heroic period") overlapped the introduction of the dustwrapper and coincided with the heyday of publisher's cloth binding. Technologies for the decoration of cloth in gilt, silver and colours were developed to a remarkably high degree and were applied with magnificent skill and artistry. Prior to the usurpation of this function by the dustwrapper, the front covers of books were often highly decorated to entice the buyer. As time went on the dustwrapper became more elaborate and the cloth decoration which it was intended to protect gradually disappeared. Many of the Antarctic books were published at the very peak of the decorated cloth era and so are attractive objects both internally and externally, quite apart from the intrinsic interest of the text. Notwithstanding the great interest in these works when they were published, most of the editions were quite small by modern standards - even the most reprinted titles and largest editions ran to a few thousand copies at most and many were printed in much smaller numbers. So, for the collector, scarcity is added to all the other facets of appeal.
With all these different reasons to attract and hold the interest of the collector it is not surprising that collecting Antarctica has become a hobby for growing numbers of people.
GASTON RENARD FINE AND RARE BOOKS
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.
Tel....+61 3 9459 5040.
Fax.....+61 3 9459 6787
Marginalia: Bibliography at the Margins