Current Editor: Cynthia D. Bertelsen
|Issue 5||Winter 2004|
In Special Collections we are frequently asked, "What makes a book rare?" This question has no quick, easy answer. Webster calls rare "superlative," "extreme of its kind," or "seldom occurring." In the market-driven society in which we live, rare often equates with a high dollar value. But, as any book lover will tell you, books may appeal to us on a intellectual or sentimental level and have a true personal value for which no amount of money has any meaning. These books may be scarce, but might not command a high price. Then there are those considered rare, and thus both scarce and valuable, by an objective collector. These are the books we will consider here.
There are no hard and fast rules. Instead, there are indications of worth that should be considered:
- Any book printed before 1501, and English books printed before 1641 could be important.
- Look for books published before 1800 in Europe, before 1820 in America, before 1850 west of the Mississippi, and before 1860 in California.
- A small initial printing may add to a book's value, especially if the number of surviving volumes can be determined.
- Editions published with special bindings or papers and those with well known illustrators or engravers may be collector's editions.
- A book may be more valuable if it is a numbered edition or is inscribed by the author or illustrator.
- Books printed by small or exclusive presses can be worth more than books printed by large commercial houses.
- The condition of any book is of extreme importance in determining value. Books with loose spines, missing pages, mold or mildew, excessive foxing, etc. are likely be worth less than those in sound condition. However, the overall scarcity and the demand for a particular book or subject may help to overcome all but the worst of physical imperfections.
- The writings of unknown authors may increase in worth when they pertain to some person, or a social or historical event that is later recognized as significant.
- Annotations in a book that are written by a well known person may increase price.
In the end, whether a book is considered rare depends on its scarcity and on market demands. No matter how unique a book may be, its monetary worth amounts only to what a collector will pay for it.
In Special Collections, we turn to professional, qualified book dealers when there are questions of monetary worth. These experts can be found in the yellow pages of your local phone book under appraisers or book dealers. It's always a good idea to check on the professional reputation and credentials of any appraiser with whom you are not personally acquainted. We have additional information about "Appraisals of Donations" at http://spec.lib.vt.edu/Appraisals.htm.
Editor's note: This article was originally published as "You have a rare book?" in the Autumn 1995 issue of Library Friends, published by the University Libraries at Virginia Tech.