Paid in Books: An Interview with Christian Westergaard

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R is greatly benefiting from new users coming from disciplines that traditionally did not provoke much serious computation. Journalists1 and humanist scholars2, for example, are embracing R. But, does the avenue from the Humanities go both ways? In a recent conversation with Christian Westergaard, proprietor of Sophia Rare Books in Copenhagen, I was delighted to learn that it does.

JBR: I was very pleased to learn when I spoke with you recently at the California Antiquarian Book Fair that you were an S and S+ user in graduate school. What were you studying and how how was S and S+ helpful?

CW: I did a Master’s in mathematics and a Bachelor’s in statistics at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, graduating in 2005. During the first year of my courses in statistics, we were quickly introduced to S+ in order to do monthly assignments. In these assignments, we were to apply the theory we had learned in the lectures on some concrete data. I still remember how difficult I initially found applying the right statistical tools to real-world problems, rather than just understanding the math in theoretical statistics. I developed a deep respect for applied statistics. Our minds can easily be deceived and we need proper statistics to make the right decisions.

JBR: How did you move from technical studies to dealing in rare scientific books and manuscripts? On the surface it seems that these might be two completely unrelated activities. How did you find a path between these two worlds?

CW: It was a gradual shift. When I first began studying, I went into an old antiquarian book shop to acquire some second-hand math and statistic books to supplement my ordinary course texts. One of them was Statistical Methods by Anders Hald. Hald was no longer working at the university, but his text had become a classic. I was fascinated by this book shop. The owner was an old, grey-haired man sitting behind a huge stack of books smoking a pipe, and writing his sales catalogues on an old IBM typing machine. He allowed me to go down into his cellar where there books everywhere from floor to ceiling. There were many books which I wanted to acquire down there, but I hardly had any money. It was a mess in the cellar and I offered to tidy up if he could pay me in the books I wanted, and he agreed. I loved coming to work there, and I continued to do so my entire studies. My boss gave me more and more responsibility and put me in charge of the mathematics, physics, statistics and science books in general. When I finished my masters, I was considering doing a PhD. I loved mathematics and still do until this day. But I also found that when I woke up in the morning, I was thinking of antiquarian books and in the evening I couldn’t get to bed because I was thinking of books. It gave me energy and happiness. So I thought, why not try and be a rare book dealer for a year or two and see how it works out? It’s been 14 years since I made that decision, and I have really enjoyed it. In 2009, I decided to start my own company and specialize in important books and manuscripts in science.

JBR: What is it like to be immersed in these rare artifacts that were so important for the transmission of scientific knowledge? What kinds of scholars do you consult to establish the authenticity of works like Euler’s Opuscula Varii Argumenti or Cauchy’s Leçons sur le calcul diffrentiel?

CW: I feel privileged to handle some of these objects on a daily basis. One day I am sitting with an original autograph manuscript by Einstein doing research on relativity, and the next day I have a presentation copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species in my hands. These are objects which have changed the world and the way we think about ourselves. In addition to the books and manuscripts, I find the people who I meet extremely interesting. A few years before Anders Hald (whose book had originally brought me into my old boss’ shop) passed away, I went to buy his books. He was 92 and completely fresh in his mind. We spoke about the history of statistics – a subject about which he authored several books.

JBR: I have noticed that collectors seem to be very interested in the works of twentieth-century mathematicians and physicists. You have works by Alonzo Church, Kurt Gödel, Richard Feynman, and others in your catalogue. But your roster of statisticians seems to focus on the old masters such as Laplace and de Moivre. Are collectors also interested in Karl Pearson, Udny Yule, and R. A. Fisher?

CW: Certainly. Maybe so much so that every time I get one of Pearson or Fisher’s main papers they sell immediately. That’s why you don’t see them in my stock at the moment.

JBR: I noticed that you had two works by Sofya Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya on display in California. Do you see a renewed interest in the works of women scientists and mathematicians, or is this remarkable and brilliant woman an exception?

CW: There has definitely been a renewed interest in exceptional woman scientists. A few years ago the New York-based Grolier Club hosted an exhibition called ‘Extraordinary Women in Science and Medicine’, and several institutions are focusing on the subject. These woman who broke through the social constraints against them are exceptional and fascinating people.

JBR: Although there are notable exceptions (Donald Knuth’s typesetting comes to mind), I think most data scientists, computer scientists, and statisticians work in a digital world of ebooks and poorly printed texts. Do you think that the technical book as a collectable artifact will survive the twenty-first century? What advice would you give to working data scientists and statisticians who are interested in collecting?

CW: Good question. Many important papers nowadays are not even printed, and the only physical material a researcher might have left from some landmark work might be some scribbles he or she did on a piece of paper. There are examples of people who collect digital art. They use various ways of signing or otherwise authenticating the artists work even if it’s on a USB stick. Maybe that’s how some research papers might be collected in the future?

My advice for anyone wanting to start collecting would be to first focus on some of the classics in their field or some other field that fascinates them. The classics will have been collected by many others in the past and there will be good descriptions, bibliographies, and catalogues describing them and why they are collectible. That way one will gradually get a feeling about which mechanisms are important when collecting and what to focus on, e.g., condition, provenance, etc. And then I’d say it’s important to build a good relationship with at least one dealer with a good reputation in the trade. Any great collection is built on a collaboration were collectors and dealers work together.

JBR: Excelent advice! Thank you Christian.

1 For example, have a look at some of the R training at this year’s IRE-CAR Conference.

2 See, for example, these University of Washington resources for the digital humanities.

Sophia Rare Books (Copenhagen), specializes in rare and important books and manuscripts in the History of Science and Medicine fields.

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