Book collecting

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Some inexpensive collectible books: these are, left to right, by Tyndall, Collingwood, H. M. Field, Bryce, Woolf, and Asimov. Book collection.jpg
Some inexpensive collectible books: these are, left to right, by Tyndall, Collingwood, H. M. Field, Bryce, Woolf, and Asimov.

Book collecting is the collecting of books, including seeking, locating, acquiring, organizing, cataloging, displaying, storing, and maintaining whatever books are of interest to a given collector. The love of books is bibliophilia , and someone who loves to read, admire, and a person who collects books is often called a bibliophile but can also be known as an bibliolater, meaning being overly devoted to books, or a bookman which is another term for a person who has a love of books.


Book collecting can be easy and inexpensive: there are millions of new and used books which are available in brick and mortar bookstores as well as online bookstores. Large book sellers include AbeBooks, Alibris, Amazon, and, and there are independent booksellers that can be found online by searching key words such as: books, books for sale, bookseller, bookstore, rare books, collectibles, etc.

Books traditionally were only printed on paper and then pages were bound together; however, in the past decade or so, books are also available in audio format through websites such as Audible, Google Audiobooks, Librivox, Kobo Audiobooks, and Downpour. Users of these sites can purchase a large library of books that they can access at any time using a phone, tablet, or computer. Just like hard copy books, audio books can be accumulated over many years. [1]

Wealthy book collectors pursue rarities such as the Gutenberg Bible and Shakespeare's First Folio, books which are both famous and extremely valuable. Collectors of lesser means may collect works by a favorite author, first editions of modern authors, or books of a certain genre. Book prices generally depend on the demand for a given edition which is based on factors such as the number of copies available, the book's condition, and if they were signed by the author (and/or editor or illustrator, if applicable) or by a famous previous owner. [2] For example, a first edition “And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street” can reach the price of $12,000 in the best condition. Some collectors join associations such as The Fine Press Book Association, which is aimed at collectors of modern fine printing. The Private Libraries Association also covers modern fine printing, but is much more general in its outlook.


In the ancient world, papyri and scrolls (the precursors of the book in codex form) were collected by both institutions and private individuals. In surviving accounts there are references to bibliophile book collectors in that era. Xenophon wrote disparagingly of a man who tried to collect more books than his friends. [3] Seneca the Younger was skeptical of those who collect books they do not read, [3] asking: "What is the use of possessing numberless books and libraries, whose titles their owner can hardly read through in a lifetime?" [4] Book collectors in western antiquity prized accurate transcription and high-quality materials. [3]

In 1344 the English bishop Richard de Bury wrote The Philobiblon , in which he praised the love and appreciation of books. [5] Philip the Good brought together a collection of "about six hundred manuscripts in his possession at the height of his reign", [6] which was the largest private collection of his day.

With the advent of the printing press invented by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century, which resulted in cheaper and more abundant books, and with the contemporaneous economic, social and political changes of the Renaissance, book collecting received a great impetus. Jean Grolier, the Treasurer-General of France, was an important bibliophile and book collector of this period. [7] Grolier owned a library of 3,000 volumes and was known for his love of the Latin classics and of richly decorated bookbindings. He was a patron of the Aldine Press that had been founded by the prominent Renaissance printer, typographer, editor and publisher Aldus Manutius the Elder.

During the Reformation 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, such as Archbishop Matthew Parker and Sir Robert Cotton, began to collect them.

By the late 17th century, millions of printed books were in circulation and auctions devoted to books began to occur and printed catalogues devoted to books began to be issued by book dealers and by auction houses in Europe and America, leading to a growing popularity of book collecting with the increasingly literate public.

With the advent of the Romantic era in the 18th century and its focus on the past, book collectors began to show an interest in old books, antiquarian editions and manuscripts. This new emphasis was nourished by the flood of old books onto the market following the dissolution of monastic and aristocratic libraries during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. [8]

The British Whig politician George John, 2nd Earl Spencer (1758-1834) collected tens of thousands of volumes. Strengths of his collection included first editions of the classics; works produced by important early presses, and notably an almost complete collection of Aldine editions; and many Bibles. [9] In 1812 he founded the bibliophilic Roxburghe Club.

Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872) collected 40,000 printed books and 60,000 manuscripts. [10] He was "the greatest collector of manuscript material the world has ever known". [11] His zealous collecting efforts, which were termed bibliomania by Thomas Frognall Dibdin, resulted in the preservation of much historical material, particularly manuscripts, that would otherwise have been destroyed.

The increasingly wealthy United States during the 19th century saw the appearance of "titan" book collectors such as the railroad magnate Henry Huntington and the financier and banker J. Pierpont Morgan. [12]

Well-known book collectors of the 20th century included Eric Quayle (children's books), Henry Wellcome (history of medicine) and Michael Sadleir (Victorian fiction).


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 and the constantly changing marketplace of editions available, 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.

The Rothschild Prayerbook sold for $13.6 million while the St Cuthbert Gospel sold for $14.7 million. Both of these religious texts were sold in 2012. The Northumberland Bestiary sold for $20 million in 2007. The New Book of Tang sold for $17.1 million in 2018. William Shakespeare’s First Folio, printed in 1623, sold for $9.978 million in 2020. An Action Comics #1 issue sold for a record $3.2 million in 2014 with a cover price of 10 cents. [13]


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 paper making process can cause the pages to develop brown spots, called foxing ; gradually turn brown, called tanning; and ultimately crumble. Despite appearing in many films and other popular culture, wearing cotton gloves while handling old or rare books does not protect the book, and can increase the risk of inadvertent damage. [14] However, the theatrical effect of showing a rare book being handled with gloved hands may increase its selling price. [14]

Common defects include general wear; dust jacket or 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.

Out-of-print, used, antiquarian, rare and collectible books are available in specialty bookstores both in person and online. Large online booksellers such as Abebooks, Alibris, Amazon, and Biblio, list inventory from other stores and collectors (charging them a monthly fee and commission charges). Smaller online rare book stores can be found by doing a general search engine inquiry using keywords such as: rare books, collectible books, rare collectibles, out of print books for sales. Antique and collectible stores may have books for sale as well. Major auction houses auction off rare and collectible books; some local auction houses sell rare books by the carton. Other sources can 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. Any book printed up to the year 1501 is known as an incunable or incunabulum. Such books command a premium and are particularly sought after by collectors interested in the history of printing. [15] 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. ParadiseLost1720Ed.jpg
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 that 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 very rare. 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 $9,978,000 at Christie's in October 2020. [16] 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. [17]

The American School Library is an example of a very rare multi-volume boxed set with works by many popular or famous authors. Apparently the only extant full set is owned by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. [18] [19]

Prominent book collectors

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. [26] 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. [27]


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

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bibliomania</span> Aspect of obsessive–compulsive disorder

Bibliomania can be a symptom of obsessive–compulsive disorder which involves the collecting or even hoarding of books to the point where social relations or health are damaged.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bibliophilia</span> Love of books

Bibliophilia or bibliophilism is the love of books. A bibliophile or bookworm is an individual who loves and frequently reads and/or collects books.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">First Folio</span> 1623 collection of William Shakespeares plays

Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies is a collection of plays by William Shakespeare, commonly referred to by modern scholars as the First Folio, published in 1623, about seven years after Shakespeare's death. It is considered one of the most influential books ever published.

The bibliographical definition of an edition is all copies of a book printed from substantially the same setting of type, including all minor typographical variants.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">A. S. W. Rosenbach</span> American collector (1876–1952)

Abraham Simon Wolf Rosenbach was an American collector, scholar, and dealer in rare books and manuscripts. In London, where he frequently attended the auctions at Sotheby's, he was known as "The Terror of the Auction Room." In Paris, he was called "Le Napoléon des Livres". Many others referred to him as "Dr. R.", a "Robber Baron" and "the Greatest Bookdealer in the World".

The Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America (ABAA) is an organization in the United States for dealers in rare and antiquarian books. The association is a member of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB).

The International League of Antiquarian Booksellers is a non-profit umbrella organization of bookseller associations, with its legal location in Geneva, Switzerland. It federates 22 National Associations of Antiquarian Booksellers, representing nearly 2000 dealers in 32 countries. Antiquarian booksellers affiliated to the League adhere to the ILAB Code of Ethics, and the League aims to server as a global network for the rare book trade.

The Book Collector is a London-based journal that deals with all aspects of the book.

<i>AB Bookmans Weekly</i> American trade publication

AB Bookman's Weekly was a weekly trade publication begun in 1948 by Sol. M. Malkin as a publication of the R. R. Bowker Company, publisher of Books in Print and other book trade and library periodicals. In its glory days between the early 1950s and the early 1990s, AB was "the best marketplace for out-of-print books in North America." Nicholas Basbanes called it "the leading trade publication in the antiquarian world." In addition to publishing long lists of books wanted and for sale, it included trade news, reference lists, conference announcements, and various special features concerning the book trade, librarianship, and book collecting. The magazine was headquartered in Newark, New Jersey.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">David A. Randall</span> American book dealer and librarian

David Anton Randall was an American book dealer, librarian and bibliographic scholar. He was head of Scribner's rare book department from 1935 to 1956, librarian of the Lilly Library and Professor of Bibliography at Indiana University. Randall was responsible for the sale of two copies of the Gutenberg Bible. As a practitioner of bibliology with a bibliophiliac addiction, a raconteur of history of books, and an avid collector, he developed a keen appreciation for books as physical objects—including the tasks of collecting, cataloging, finding and preserving them.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gabriel Wells</span>

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Thomas Pennant Barton</span>

Thomas Pennant Barton was an American diplomat and bibliophile who is primarily remembered for the collection of books by and relating to William Shakespeare and English drama that he amassed between 1834 and 1869. Four years after his death, Barton's collection was acquired by the Boston Public Library, where it has remained ever since.

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The Fellowship of American Bibliophilic Societies (FABS) is an association of American book clubs whose members seek interaction with book collectors across the country and around the world. At The Rowfant (Book) Club's 100th anniversary celebration in 1992, local members and their guests from book clubs in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco discovered common interests in bibliophilic book clubs. The new association's first meeting was November 5, 1993, in New York, at The Grolier Club. In 1994, the group drew up articles of association outlining their goals to promote and develop common interests of the member societies.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Books in the United Kingdom</span>

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Moses Polock</span>

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sophistication (books)</span>

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Percy Muir (1894–1979) was a "distinguished" English antiquarian bookseller, book collector and bibliographer. He became "one of the most respected figures" in the rare books scene, serving as president of both the Antiquarian Booksellers Association and the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Justin G. Schiller</span>

Justin Galland Schiller is an American bookseller specializing in rare and collectible children's books; proprietor during his student days under his own name (1960–69), then Justin G. Schiller, Ltd. (1969–2020). Headquartered in New York City, it was the oldest specialist firm in the United States, focusing on historical and collectible children's books, related original art, and manuscripts. In 1988, he formed a second corporation—Battledore Ltd, with his partner and spouse Dennis M V David, to further specialize in original children's book illustration art and the legacy of Maurice Sendak.

John Harrison Stonehouse was an English bookseller and Charles Dickens scholar at long-established London booksellers Sotheran's where he rose from apprentice to managing director through hard work and a strong entrepreneurial instinct. He introduced and popularised the "Cosway" binding and commissioned the opulent edition of Edward FitzGerald's The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam that was lost when RMS Titanic sank in 1912. He published a book on the subject in 1933.


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Works cited

Further reading

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

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:

For book collecting in China, see: