The Problem of Books

—Otto M. Vondrak photo

The Problem of Books

February 2024Recently, a friend asked an online railway enthusiast group for some help finding photos of a particular locomotive in the late 1960s. In response, one member of that group replied, “There are these things called ‘books.’” This was half in jest, but it got me thinking — we have a serious problem with access to good railroading books in our hobby.

Buying the books that you need is great, of course. Collecting railway books is a major part of our shared hobby, and I have scores. However, building a collection can be costly, which is a barrier to entry for many. It is not unusual for railway-related books to list near or in excess of a hundred dollars.

There’s also the problem of even finding books. Recently, I attended a regional model railroad swap meet, and there I located a copy of Southern Pacific in Oregon Pictorial, published by Pacific Fast Mail in 1993. Copies are relatively rare — they show up on eBay a couple times a year, and I’ve only ever seen one copy in a bookstore over the years, and never when I had the money to buy it. As a result, it took me 20 years to actually purchase my own copy!

Places to buy books are also harder to find. There are fewer bookstores and hobby shops. And if the book you are looking for is out of print? It may not be available at all. Online retailers help, but only if you already know you want the book. Paging through a book to decide? Almost impossible on the internet.

Libraries can be an option, within limits. Maintaining book collections is expensive, and many libraries may never buy books that seem unlikely to have broad appeal. Likewise, many divest books that are rarely checked out. If you live in Omaha, Neb., and you want to find a book on Union Pacific, you may be in luck. If you live in San Diego and are looking for a volume about upstate New York’s Bath & Hammondsport short line? The most recent title is Clare Rogers’ The Pony Road, printed in 1977, and there is exactly one circulating copy, located at the public library in Painted Post, N.Y.

A partial solution — in the U.S., public libraries offer “Inter-Library Loan,” wherein you may request a book held by almost any other public library. It’s usually free, but it can take weeks, or even months, to arrive. Another option — travel to Washington, D.C., and visit the Library of Congress, which has a copy of every formally published book ever printed in the U.S. Seeing the books is free, but getting to the library? Less so for most.

As a result, some portions of historical knowledge are becoming scarce. It’s not only the odd short lines of the past that are becoming more obscure, but it’s also a kind of “silo-ing” of knowledge that is going on. If you develop a passion for, say, Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, with money and time you could assemble a fine book collection focused on it. But what if you have a few specific questions about, say, The Milwaukee Road? Unless you finance an expansion to your library — or even know where to look — your questions may remain unanswered. Each of us is becoming ever more knowledgeable about our narrow obsessions, and even more of a stranger to each other’s.

I wish I had a solution. Many of us have impressive collections that might be bestowed to local libraries, but there’s no guarantee they will have the physical space or budget to care for it. Digitization is held back by the costs and complexities of securing reproduction rights. The problem of access remains as tough as ever with no clear solution.

—Alexander Benjamin Craghead is a transportation historian, photographer, artist, and author.

February 2024This article appeared in the February 2024 issue of Railfan & Railroad. Subscribe Today!

This article was posted on: January 15, 2024