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Book collecting

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Book collecting

Some inexpensive collectible books: these are by Tyndall, Collingwood, H. M. Field, Bryce, Woolf, and Asimov

Book collecting is the bibliophile.

Bibliophile book collecting is distinct from casual book ownership and the accumulation of books for reading. It can probably be said to have begun with the collections of illuminated manuscripts, both commissioned and second-hand, by the elites of Burgundy and France in particular, which became common in the 15th century. Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy appears to have had the largest private collection of his day, with about six hundred volumes. With the advent of printing with movable type books became considerably cheaper, and book collecting received a particular impetus in England and elsewhere during the Reformation when many monastic libraries were broken up, and their contents often destroyed. There was an English antiquarian reaction to Henry VIII's dissolution of the Monasteries. The commissioners of Edward VI plundered and stripped university, college, and monastic libraries, so to save books from being destroyed, those who could began to collect them.

Book collecting can be easy and inexpensive: there are millions of new and used books, and thousands of bookstores, including online booksellers like Abebooks, Alibris, Amazon, and Only the wealthiest book collectors pursue the great rarities: the Gutenberg Bible and Shakespeare's First Folio are, for example, both famous and extremely valuable. Collectors of average means may collect works by a favorite author, first editions of modern authors, or books on a given subject. Book prices generally depend on the demand for a given book, the number of copies available, and the book's condition. There are associations that collectors may join. The Fine Press Book Association is aimed at collectors of modern fine printing, and produces its journal, Parenthesis, twice a year. The Private Libraries Association covers modern fine printing too, but is much more general in its outlook and produces a quarterly journal, the Private Library.


  • Genres, themes, and interests 1
  • Prices 2
  • Condition 3
  • Sources 4
  • Antiquarian book collecting 5
    • Prominent book collectors 5.1
  • Book collecting in China 6
    • Terminology 6.1
  • Virtual book collecting 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • Further reading 10
  • External links 11

Genres, themes, and interests

There are millions of books, so collectors necessarily specialize in one or more genres or subgenres of literature. A reader of fiction, who enjoys Westerns, might decide to collect first editions of Zane Grey's novels. A lover of modern English poetry might collect the works of W H Auden. A Californian who prefers non-fiction might look for books about the history of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Individual interests may include:

Related collecting interests include collecting bookplates, autographs, and ephemera.

Title page of Colman's The Comedies of Terence, 1765


Book prices generally depend on the demand for a given book, the number of copies available for purchase, and the condition of a given copy. As with other collectibles, prices rise and fall with the popularity of a given author, title, or subject.

Because of the huge number of books for sale, there is no single comprehensive price guide for collectible books. The prices of the copies listed for sale at the online bookseller sites provide some indication of their current market values.


As with other collectibles, the value of a book ultimately depends on its physical condition. Years of handling, moving, and storage take their toll on the dust jacket, cover, pages, and binding. Books are subject to damage from sunlight, moisture, and insects. Acid from the papermaking process can cause the pages to develop brown spots, called foxing; gradually turn brown, called tanning; and ultimately crumble.

Common defects include general wear; jacket/cover edge wear, scratches, and tears; the previous owner's written name, Bookplate, or label; soil and stains; dogeared pages; underlining, highlighting, and marginalia; water damage; torn hinges, endpapers and pages; and pages, illustrations, or whole signatures free of the binding, or missing entirely.

A book in good condition should be a rectangular solid when at rest, whether upright or on its back, with the covers at right angles to the spine. If a book is out of square, usually from resting crooked on a shelf, or leans to the right or left when on its back, it is cocked, or shelf-cocked. If the covers bend in or flare out, usually from rapid humidity changes, a book is bowed (bent like a drawn bow). Thick hardbound books also tend to have their pages sag downward in the middle even if they are sitting level on a shelf.


New books are readily available from bookstores and online. Many bookstores specialize in out-of-print, used, antiquarian, rare and collectible books. Online booksellers, including Abebooks, Alibris, Amazon, and Biblio, encourage other stores and individuals to sell books through their websites, and charge a commission.

Antique and collectible stores may have a few books for sale. Major auction houses sell quality collectible books, and local auction houses may sell books by the carton. Thrift shops and second-hand stores commonly have book sections. Other sources include estate, yard, garage, or rummage sales; and charity fund-raisers.

Antiquarian book collecting

Antiquarian book collecting may be roughly defined as an interest in books printed prior to 1900 and can encompass interest in 19th, 18th, 17th, 16th, and 15th-century books. Antiquarian book collectors are not exclusively interested in first editions and first printings, although they can be. European books created before 1455 are all hand-written and are therefore one-of-a-kind historical artifacts in which the idea of "edition" and "printing" is irrelevant. There is also an interest among antiquarians for books beautifully made with fine bindings and high quality paper. For many books printed before about 1770, the first edition is not always obtainable, either because of price and/or availability. Later editions/printings from an era of interest are still often desirable to the antiquarian collector as they are also artifacts.

The beginning of Paradise Lost from a 1720 illustrated edition. Not a first edition but desirable among antiquarians.

For example, a first edition of Paradise Lost (1667) by John Milton can fetch equivalent to a down payment on a house. However, the first illustrated folio edition of 1688, technically a later edition, is worth a fraction of the first edition, but still fetches in the thousands of dollars as an illustrated book from the era in which Milton lived.

There were many editions of Alexander Pope's translation of The Iliad and The Odyssey. The first edition of 1715-1720 is worth a small fortune whereas slightly later 18th-century editions are a lot less expensive but still garner premium prices. The John Ogilby 17th-century translations of Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey garner hefty prices, but not as much as the first edition of the Pope translation. This may be in part due to a significant number of copies of Ogilby's first edition probably perished in the Great Fire of London of 1666.

The first English movable-type printer was Caxton in the late 15th century. Editions of his books from the 15th century are virtually unobtainable. Occasionally, 16th-century editions similar to Caxton's books appear among antiquarian book dealers and auctions, often fetching very high prices. The last Shakespeare First Folio of 1623 (first edition of the collected works of William Shakespeare) garnered a record-breaking 5.5 million in 2006. Later 17th-century folios of William Shakespeare's works can still fetch about the price of a small house but are more readily available and relatively obtainable, whereas almost all extant copies of the First Folio are owned by libraries, museums or universities and thus are unlikely to appear on the market. For the antiquarian collector, how a particular book's production fits into a larger historical context can be as important as the edition, even if it may not be a first edition.

Also of interest are books previously owned by famous persons, or personages of high stature, such as someone from royalty or the nobility. Tracing the history of an antiquarian book's possession history, referred to as "provenance", can markedly affect the value of a copy, even if it is not desirable per se. For example, a copy of a less-important 18th-century book known to have been owned by Voltaire would achieve a value many times its stand-alone market value, simply because it was once in Voltaire's possession. Previous owners of books often signed their copies or labelled them with Bookplates, and it is often not difficult to identify a prominent previous owner if the provenance is well documented. Books owned by well-known individuals that also have a connection with the author (often as a gift from the author with a written dedication to the recipient) are known as Association copies.[1]

Prominent book collectors

Book collecting in China

The history of book collecting in China dates back over two millennia. An important effort to collect books in China was made during the early Han Dynasty by the government, as many important books were burned during the Qin Dynasty. From then on, book collecting began to flourish in China, particularly after the invention of block printing during the early Tang Dynasty, with both imperial and private collections blooming throughout the country. However, the systematic study of book collecting began only during the Qing Dynasty.


  • Cangshulou (Chinese: 藏書樓 "book collecting tower"): library, such as the private Tianyi Chamber (天一閣), the oldest existing library in China, or the imperial Wenyuan Chamber (文淵閣), where the works collected in Siku Quanshu were reposited
  • Jinxiangben (巾箱本 "headscarf box edition"): ancient pocket edition
  • Jiupingzhuang (舊平裝 "old paperback") or Jiushu (舊書 "old books"): old books published after 1911, when the Qing Dynasty was overthrown
  • Maobianben (毛邊本 "hairy-side edition"): uncut editions
  • Songben (宋本 "Song edition") or Songban (宋版 "Song edition"): block printed books published during the Song Dynasty, highly valued by collectors
  • Xianzhuangshu (線裝書 "thread-bound book"): thread-bound books, usually referred to those published before 1911

Virtual book collecting

Virtual book collecting can be described as collecting books in a digital format (virtually) on a computer or other electronic device. A bibliophile may acquire ebooks by downloading them or copying from borrowed media, such as CDs and DVDs. However, this may violate copyright law, depending on the license under which the ebook was released. Ebooks acquired from Project Gutenberg and many similar free collections cause no violation as they have gone out of copyright, have been released under a Creative Commons license, or else are in the public domain.

See also


  1. ^ "Association Copies". AbeBooks Inc. Retrieved 13 August 2013. 
  2. ^ "Lancashire Evening Post Darren Ashcroft". October 7, 2011. 
  3. ^ "The Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature". University of Virginia Library. Retrieved April 11, 2010. 
  4. ^ Twentieth Century Book Collectors and Bibliographers.ISBN 0-7876-3072-1. DLB Vol 201 p.81-88
  5. ^ Basbanes, Nicholas A. (1999). A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books. New York: Henry Holt. p. 461. Retrieved April 11, 2010. 
  6. ^ "Houghton Library: History". Harvard College Library. c. 2010. Retrieved April 11, 2010. 
  7. ^ Reif, Rita (December 21, 1988). "Library of 10,000 Rarities To Be Sold at Sotheby's". The New York Times. Retrieved April 11, 2010. 

Further reading

  • Ahearn, Allen and Patricia. Book Collecting: A Comprehensive Guide. New York: Putnam, 1995 ISBN 0-399-14049-2
  • Ahearn, Allen and Patricia. Collected Books : The Guide to Values. New York: Putnam, 2001 ISBN 0-399-14781-0
  • American Book Prices Current (Annual, 1894/1895 onwards)
  • Carter, John. ABC for Book Collectors. 8th ed. edited by Nicolas Barker. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll; London: British Library, 2004 ISBN 0-7123-4822-0 (British Library) ISBN 1-58456-112-2 (Oak Knoll) - a classic, first published in 1952.
  • Carter, John. Taste and Technique in Book-collecting, with an Epilogue. Pinner, Middlesex: Private Libraries Association, 1970 (The Sandars Lectures in Bibliography, 1947) ISBN 0-900002-30-1
  • Greenfield, Jane. The Care of Fine Books. New York: Lyons & Burford, 1988. ISBN 1-55821-003-2
  • McBride, Bill. Book Collecting for Fun and Profit. Hartford, CT: McBride/Publisher, 1997. ISBN 0-930313-05-4
  • McBride, Bill. A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions. Sixth ed. Hartford, CT: McBride/Publisher, 2000. ISBN 0-930313-06-2
  • McBride, Bill. Points of Issue. Third ed. [Hartford, CT]: McBride/Publisher, 1996. ISBN 0-930313-04-6
  • Peters, Jean (Editor). Book Collecting: A Modern Guide. New York and London: R.R. Bowker and Company, 1977. ISBN 0-8352-0985-7
  • Bernhard Cella Collecting Books: A selection of recent Art and Artists' Books produced in Austria
  • Rees-Mogg, William . How to Buy Rare Books: A Practical Guide to the Antiquarian Book Market. Oxford: Phaidon, 1985 (Christie's collectors guides) ISBN 0-7148-8019-1
  • Rota, Anthony. Apart from the Text. Pinner, Middlesex: Private Libraries Association, 1998 ISBN 1-884718-52-3
  • Rota, Anthony. Books in the Blood. Pinner, Middlesex: Private Libraries Association, 2002 ISBN 0-900002-96-4
  • Russell, R.B. Guide to First Edition Prices, Eighth Edition. North Yorkshire: Tartarus Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-905784-24-0
  • Stitz, Charles (editor) (2010). Australian Book Collectors. Bendigo, Victoria: Bread Street Press. ISBN 978-0-646-53340-7.
  • Wilson, Robert A. Modern Book Collecting. New York: Lyons & Burford, 1992 ISBN 1-55821-179-9
  • Zempel, Edward N. and Verkler, Linda (Editors). First Editions: A Guide to Identification. Fourth ed. Peoria, IL: The Spoon River Press, 2001. ISBN 0-930358-18-X
  • Forbes article on book collecting by Finn-Olaf Jones, December 12, 2005
  • W. C. Hazlitt: The Book Collector: A general survey of the pursuit and of those who have engaged in it at home and abroad from the earliest period to the present ... . London: J. Grant, 1904 - published over a century ago, but still worth dipping into.
  • Joseph Connolly: Collecting Modern First Editions (1977).

For more modern accounts, see the series of books on book-collectors, book-collecting and "bibliomania" by Nicholas A. Basbanes:

  • A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books. New York: Holt, 1999 ISBN 0-8050-6176-2.
  • Patience & Fortitude: A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places, and Book Culture. New York: HarperCollins, 2001 ISBN 0-06-019695-5.
  • Among the Gently Mad: Perspectives and Strategies for the Book Hunter in the 21st Century. New York: Holt, 2002 ISBN 0-8050-5159-7.
  • A Splendor of Letters : The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World. New York: HarperCollins, 2003 ISBN 0-06-008287-9.
  • Every Book Its Reader : The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World. New York: HarperCollins, 2005 ISBN 0-06-059323-7.

Follow husband and wife team Lawrence & Nancy Goldstone as they search for rare and collectible volumes, and explore real mysteries in the rare-book world, in:

  • Used And Rare: Travels In The Book World. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997 ISBN 0-312-15682-0
  • Slightly Chipped: Footnotes in Booklore. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999 ISBN 0-312-20587-2
  • Warmly Inscribed: The New England Forger and Other Book Tales. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2001 ISBN 0-312-26268-X
  • Out of the Flames: The Remarkable Story of a Fearless Scholar, a Fatal Heresy, and One of the Rarest Books in the World. New York: Broadway, 2002 ISBN 0-7679-0836-8
  • The Friar and the Cipher : Roger Bacon and the Unsolved Mystery of the Most Unusual Manuscript in the World. New York: Broadway, 2005 ISBN 0-7679-1473-2

For book collecting in China, see:

  • (Chinese) 傅璇琮、谢灼华主编,《中國藏書通史》,宁波:宁波出版社,2001
  • (Chinese) 焦树安,《中囯藏书史话》,北京:商务印书館,1997
  • (Chinese) 任繼愈主編,《中國藏書樓》,沈阳:辽宁人民出版社,2001
  • (Chinese) 黄燕生,《天祿琳琅:古代藏書和藏書樓 》,台北:萬卷樓圖書有限公司,2000
  • (Chinese) 徐凌志主编,《中国历代藏书史》,南昌:江西人民出版社,2004

External links

  • Alcuin Society A voluntary association of people who care about the past, present and future of fine books
  • Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America An association of rare book sellers in the United States
  • Australian and New Zealand Association of Antiquarian Booksellers The official association of rare book sellers in Australia and New Zealand
  • Biblionews The Journal of The Book Collectors’ Society of Australia.
  • The FinePress Book Association An association of collectors of modern fine press books
  • Private Libraries Association A worldwide association of booklovers and collectors
  • Collecting Books and Magazines: Authors and Artists Resource material for collectors of children's books and magazines
  • Collegiate Book Collecting Championship Annual collegiate book collecting contest, promoting book collecting to the next generation
  • Bookbinding and the Conservation of Books A Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology, by Matt T. Roberts and Don Etherington
  • Books and Book Collecting Information and resources for book collectors
  • The conservation of books and documents: ten frequently asked questions At the National Library of the Netherlands
  • Conservation OnLine: Resources for Conservation Professionals A project of the Preservation Department of Stanford University Libraries
  • Digital Librarian A librarian's choice of the best Web resources for book collectors
  • The International League of Antiquarian Booksellers Resources including library of articles, glossary of terms in several languages
  • "Terms of the Trade" from the Antiquarian Booksellers Association
  • Useful Guides for Book Collectors from Vintage Paperbacks blog
  • Infography about Book Collecting A book collector's choice of the best books, articles, and online resources
  • UBC Asian Library Rare Book Collection – A rich collection of Chinese documents and literature, as well as some rare reproductions of Japanese and Chinese paintings, from the UBC Library Digital Collections
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