How to Start Collecting Rare Books

February 09, 2016

How to Start Collecting Rare Books

As a rare book seller I regularly meet people who love old books but aren't sure that book collecting is the right hobby for them. Popular culture has created an image of book collectors as older, wealthy, white men who attend glitzy auctions and have beautiful libraries. But in reality, book collecting is a very accessible hobby, and you don’t need to become an overnight expert or spend vast sums to build a meaningful library. Nor do you need to collect the usual big name authors – there's plenty of space for creativity in your collecting choices. 

First you might ask: Why collect rare books? There are almost as many reasons as collectors: love of a particular subject or author, passion for fine printing and binding, and the enjoyment of beautiful objects. But the main theme drawing all collectors together is that antique books are a tangible, physical link to the past, both emotionally and intellectually. For instance, owning a first edition transports us back to the moment a book was first published. It’s a link with the author as they sent their work out into the world, and also with the book’s first readers.

Historically, physical books can tell us a great deal about the conditions in which they were written and circulated; what their authors and publishers hoped to achieve; and how the books were actually read and used by the public. The study of these types of questions, known as book history, is an exciting and quickly-growing academic discipline that sheds light on many areas of human endeavour.

Collecting is therefore a valuable pastime. In addition to being personally fulfilling, it preserves books as a historical record for future generations, and the very best collections reveal aspects of their subject that only become clear when their contents are viewed as a whole, rather than as individual items. Books and other printed material such as scientific journals, as well as hand-written manuscripts and letters, are particularly important in the history of science. They represent one of the key ways that scientists have exchanged information and established priority, and they have been a primary vehicle for presenting new scientific ideas to the public.

So how does one start out as a book collector, particularly in the sciences? The first step is to think about your interests and what type of collection you would like to build. Some of the best collections have narrow specialities – for instance, instead of buying biology books in general, you might focus on the history of evolutionary theories. Having a clear focus isn't a requirement, but it will make it easier to begin learning about the books in your field, and it’s also helpful for staying in budget. Choosing a very specific or under-valued subject may also mean that you have less competition from other collectors and that you can build a strong collection with a smaller outlay. 

And keep in mind that the books in your collection don't have to be expensive, pretty, or even old. There are great collections of modern zines, hip-hop magazines, and paperback romance novels. What's important is that your collection reflects your interests and fulfils your curiosity. I strongly recommend that those new to collecting read through the past winners of the Honey & Wax Book Collecting Prize, whose collections represent the wide diversity of approaches to the hobby.

The next step is to become familiar with reference works. Some rare book terminology can be confusing, so a great starting point is John Carter and Nicolas Barker's ABC for Book Collectors, an often-humorous glossary of rare book terminology (also available as a free .pdf from the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers).

For those interested in older books, I strongly recommend Sarah Werner's Studying Early Printed Books 1450–1800: A Practical Guide. It's a concise and very readable introduction to the way that books were manufactured during the hand-press era in Europe and North America, and explains in plain language many of the most confusing aspects of rare book collecting and scholarship.

Bibliographies, lists of books by author or subject, are invaluable for collectors, and many include detailed notes on the publication history, appearance, rarity, and historical significance of the books they list. Some important reference works for the history of science and medicine are listed below. These are the ones you'll see referenced most often in bookseller's catalogues, but there are many other subject specific bibliographies that could be helpful depending on what you collect. If you need advice on which references to consult, an academic library or bookseller with expertise in your field can help. 

Some of these bibliographies are out of print, but they can be found in libraries or purchased on the second-hand market. Oak Knoll is a particularly good source for such reference books.

  • Printing and the Mind of Man
  • Ogilvie & Harvey's The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science
  • Kristine Krapp's Notable Black American Scientists
  • Bern Dibner's Heralds of Science
  • Harrison Horblit's One Hundred Books Famous in Science
  • Haskell F. Norman's One Hundred Books Famous in Medicine
  • The Garrison-Morton medical bibliography
  • The Norman Library of Science and Medicine
  • Hook & Norman's Origins of Cyberspace
  • Taylor's The Mathematical Practitioners of Tudor & Stuart England
  • Taylor's The Mathematical Practitioners of Hanoverian England
  • Heirs of Hippocrates

Though reference works are important, there’s no substitute for going to shops and book fairs and looking at books in person. Don’t be shy – booksellers are usually happy to help beginners, so feel free to ask questions and request to see and handle specific books. Establishing good relationships with booksellers is key. Once they know about your interests they can offer you new stock before it’s available publicly, and they can help guide your collecting. Bookseller catalogues are also a great source of information, and some become well-known reference works themselves.

The best way to find booksellers and book fairs is by checking the websites of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association (UK), and the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America. (The ABAA offers great advice on Attending Your First Book Fair, much of which is also relevant to visiting shops.)

Further opportunities for hands-on education in book history and book collecting include the excellent short courses offered by the London Rare Books School, the UVA Rare Books School (courses offered throughout the US), and the California Rare Books School.

There are a few things to keep in mind once you start buying books. First, you should try to purchase copies that are in the best condition you can afford, ensuring in particular that no pages or illustrations are missing. Buying an inexpensive copy that's in worse shape than a nicer-but-still-affordable copy isn't a savings in the long-run. You'll get more enjoyment from your collection, and it will be easier to sell on or donate, if the books are in great condition. (This rule should be followed flexibly. If a book is so uncommon that it might not appear again for years it could be worth buying in less than spectacular condition.)

Second, it’s a bad idea to purchase any antique solely as an investment – tastes and trends in the market can change rapidly and there’s no way to assure a return even for the savviest buyers. A collection based on your interests will inevitably provide more pleasure, and have more emotional and intellectual depth, than one based on the potential for investment value. In other words, buy what you love and have a great time collecting!

I hope you've found this guide helpful. Please feel free to contact us with any questions about book collecting or book history. You might also enjoy our Rare Book Guide, which contains articles on a variety of subjects, including What Is a First Edition? and Understanding Rare Book Descriptions. All the photos in this article depict books and manuscripts from our stock and were originally posted to our Instagram account. Please email us to find out more about them.