Book collecting is the collecting of books. While many book lovers (bibliophiles) accumulate volumes for a personal library, the serious book collector is interested in the physical books themselves, not just their content. For instance, many collectors seek out first editions of books, or acquire copies of every work written by a particular author or on a particular subject.
Basic collecting is quite easy; there are billions of books in the world, and thousands of bookstores, both physical and virtual (Internet). There is an active market in all types of works, going all the way back to illuminated manuscripts. While manuscript books are all expensive, even incunabula (books printed in the 15th century) can be found for several hundred US dollars, and century-old books often cost under ten dollars.
Advanced collectors may pursue the great rarities; the Gutenberg Bible and Shakespeare's First Folio are famous, and pricey. Unusual items include the "book" of squares of native textiles brought back from the South Seas by Captain Cook. More practical for the collector of average means is to collect all the first editions of a favorite modern author.
History of Anglo-European book collecting
Although forms of it existed under the Roman Empire and towards the end of the Middle Ages, book-collecting, as it is now understood, is essentially of modern growth. A glance through what must be regarded as the medieval textbook on the love of books, the Philobiblon, shows that it deals almost exclusively with the delights of literature. Sebastian Brant's attack on the book-fool, written a century and a half later, demonstrates nothing more than that the possession of books is a poor substitute for learning. This is so obviously true that, before book-collecting in the modern sense can begin, it is essential that there should be no lack of books to read, just as until cups and saucers became plentiful there was no room for the collector of old china. Even when the invention of printing had reduced the cost of books by some 80 percent, book-collectors did not immediately appear.
Formation of personal libraries
There is a natural temptation to imagine that the early book-owners must necessarily have been collectors themselves. This is far from being the case. For example Jan Grolier (1479-1565), who caused may books to be bound for himself and his friends, seems to have done so partly to encourage the best printers of his day, and partly to provide his friends with the most recent fruits of Renaissance scholarship.
In England Archbishop Cranmer, the Lords Arundel and Lumley, and Henry, Prince of Wales¹ (1594-1612), in France the famous historian Jacques Auguste de Thou (1553-1617), brought together the best books of their day in all departments of learned literature, put them into handsome leather jackets, and enriched them with various marks of possession. But they brought their books together for use and study, to be read by themselves and scholars, and no evidence has been produced that they appreciated what a collector might now call the points of a book other than its fine condition and literary or informational merits. Other people have been dubbed collectors based on a shelf-full of volumes known to have been stamped with their arms.
Beginnings of true book-collecting
True book-collecting is distinct from the formation of working libraries and from casual book ownership. It began in England at the time of the antiquarian reaction produced by the book massacres when the monasteries were dissolved by Henry VIII, and the university and college libraries and the parish service books were plundered and stripped by the commissioners of Edward VI.
To rescue good books from perishing is one of the main objects of book-collecting. When Archbishop Parker and Sir Robert Cotton set to work to gather what they could of the scattered records of English statecraft and literature, they were book-collectors in a sense and on a scale to which few of their modern imitators can pretend. Men of more slender purses, and armed with none of Archbishop Parker's special powers, worked according to their ability on similar lines.
Humphrey Dyson (1582-1633), an Elizabethan notary, who collected contemporary proclamations and books from the early English presses, and George Thomason (d. 1666), the bookseller who bought, stored and catalogued all the pamphlet literature of the English Civil War, were mindful of the future historians of the days in which they lived. By the end of the 17th century book-collecting was in full swing all over Europe, and much of its apparatus had come into existence. In 1676 book auctions were introduced into England from Holland, and soon we can trace in priced catalogues the beginning of a taste for Caxtons, and the books prized by collectors slowly fought their way up from amid the heavy volumes of theology by which they were at first overwhelmed.
Elements of book collecting
Collection interests may include books relating to all the qualities of a book or books, including: author, illustrator, publisher, printer, series (Modern Library, etc.), private presses (Kelmscott Press, etc.), book designers, physical forms (miniature books, palm leaf, vellum, etc.), awards (Pulitzer Prize, Booker Prize, etc.), stages of publication (galley copies, advance copies, uncorrected bound proofs, etc.), author signature, association copy, historical era, regional/local interest, subject, genre, incunabula or marginalia. Related collecting interests include autograph collecting and ephemera.
While book-collecting may thus take an endless variety of forms the heads under which these may be grouped are few and fairly easily defined. They may be here briefly indicated together with some notes as to the literature methods which has grown up round them. The development which bibliographical literature has taken is indeed very significant of the changed ideals of collectors. Brunet's Manuel du libraire et de l'amateur de livres, first published in 1810, attained its fifth edition in 1860-1864, and has never since been re-edited (supplement, 1878-1880). The Bibliographer's Manual of English Literature by W. T. Lowndes, first published in 1834, was revised by H. G. Bohn in 1857-1864, and of this also no further edition has been printed. These two works between them gave all the information the old-fashioned collectors required, the Trésor de livres rares et précieux by J.G.T. Grässe adding little to the information given by Brunet. The day of the omnivorous collector being past, the place of these general manuals has been taken by more detailed bibliographies and handbooks on special books, and though new editions of both Lowndes and Brunet would be useful to librarians and booksellers no publisher has had the courage to produce them.
To attract collectors a book must appeal to the eye, mind or imagination, and many famous books appeal to all three. A book may be beautiful by virtue of its binding, its illustrations or the simple perfection and harmony of its print and paper. The attraction of a fine binding has always been felt in France, the high prices quoted for Elzevirs and French first editions being often due much more to their 17th and 18th century jackets than to the books themselves. The appreciation of old bindings has greatly increased in England since the exhibition of them at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in 1891 (illustrated catalogue printed the same year), English blind stamped bindings, embroidered bindings, and bindings attributable to Samuel Mearne (1624-1683) being much more sought after than formerly.
Illustrated books of certain periods are also much in request, and with the exception of a few which early celebrity has prevented becoming rare have increased inordinately in price. The primitive woodcuts in incunabula are now almost too highly appreciated.
Appreciation of finely printed books has seldom extended much beyond the 15th century. In addition to the works mentioned in the article on incunabula, note may be made of Humphreys' Masterpieces of the Early Printers and Engravers (1870), while Druckschriften des XV bis XVIII Jahrhunderts by Friedrich Lippmann and Robert Dohme (1884-1887) covers, though not-very fully, the later period.
Among books which make an intellectual appeal to the collectors may be classed all works of historical value which have not been reprinted, or of which the original editions are more authentic, or convincing than modern reprints. It is evident that these cover a vast field, and that the collector in taking possession of any corner of it is at once the servant and rival of historical students. Lord Crawford's vast collections of English, Scottish and Irish proclamations and of papal bulls may be cited as capital instances of the work which a collector may do for the promotion of historical research, and the philological library brought together by Prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte (An Attempt at a Catalogue of the late Prince Louis-Lucien Bonaparte by Victor Collins, published 1894) and the Foxwell collection of early books on political economy (presented to the University of London by the Goldsmiths' Company) are two other instances. Much collecting of this kind is now being carried on by the libraries of institutes and societies connected with special professions and studies, but there is ample room also for private collectors to work on these lines.
Of books which appeal to a collectors' imagination the most obvious examples are those which can be associated with some famous person or event. A book which has belonged to a king or queen (more especially one who, like Mary, Queen of Scots, has appealed to popular sympathies), or to a great statesman, soldier or poet, which bears any mark of having been valued by him, or of being connected with any striking incident in his life, has an interest which defies analysis. Collectors themselves have a natural tenderness for their predecessors, and a copy of a famous work is all the more regarded if its pedigree can be traced through a long series of book-loving owners. Hence the production of such works as Great book-collectors by Charles and Mary Elton (1893), English book-collectors by W.Y. Fletcher (1902) and Nouvel armorial du bibliophile by J. Guigard (1890).
One of the recognized byways of book-collecting, however, used to be the collection of as many editions as possible of the same work. When this results in the acquisition of numerous late editions of no value for the text, its only usefulness would appear to be the index it may offer to the authors' popularity. But in translations of the Bible, in liturgical works, and in editions published during the author's lifetime, the aid offered to the study of the development of the final text by a long row of intermediate editions may be very great.
History of printing
Another instance in which imagination reinforces the more positive interest a book may possess is in the case of editions which can be connected with the origin, diffusion or development of printing. Piety suggests that book-lovers should take a special interest in the history of the art which has done so much for their happiness, and in this respect they have mostly shown themselves religious. The first book printed in any town is reasonably coveted by local antiquaries, and the desire to measure the amount and quality of the work of every early printer has caused the preservation of thousands of books which would otherwise have perished.
The financial side of book-collecting guides to book prices and auction results. While largely influenced by fashion, the prices given for books are never wholly unreasonable. They are determined, firstly by the positive or associative interest which can be found in the book itself, secondly by the infrequency with which copies come into the market compared with the number and wealth of their would-be possessors, and thirdly, except in the case of books of the greatest interest and rarity, by the condition of the copy offered in respect to completeness, size, freshness and absence of stains.
Rarity is the sense that a book is difficult to procure. Rarity is not the only factor collectors use to decide what books to add to their collection; they may simply be interested in a particular book.
The anticipation that a book will always be easily procurable is often unfounded, but, so long as the anticipation exists, it restrains collecting. An example of this: horn-books are much rarer than First Folio Shakespeares. It has been suggested that the ultimate rarity of books varies in the inverse ratio of the number of copies originally printed.
Condition of books is important to collectors. While books are basically durable objects, years or centuries of handling and moving can take their toll on the cover and binding, and many old books have been rebound. The dust jackets of recent books are relatively delicate, and collectors pay close attention to their condition. The paper of the pages themselves can be a problem. Excessive acid left over from the papermaking process can literally crumble the pages into dust, and books of some eras absolutely must have the acid neutralized if they are to survive for any length of time.
Other enemies to guard against include fire, water, very dry air, very humid air, sunlight, and insects. The collector can do some maintenance and repair personally, but bookbinders are recommended for major restoration or to work on rare volumes.
Prominent book collectors
Henry II of France
Robert Bruce Cotton
Charles Dyson Perrins
Major historical bequests and sales
While book-collecting thus came into existence it was rather as an added grace in the formation of a fine library than as a separate pursuit. Almost all the large book-buyers of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries bought with a public object, or were rewarded for their zeal by their treasures being thought worthy of a public resting-place.
Sir Thomas Smith (1513-1577) bequeathed his books to Queens' College, Cambridge; Archbishop Parker's were left under severe restrictions to Corpus Christi College in the same university; Sir Thomas Bodley refounded during his lifetime the library at Oxford University, to which also Archbishop Laud gave liberally and Selden bequeathed his books. The library of Archbishop Williams went to St John's College, Cambridge; that of Archbishop Ussher was bought for Trinity College, Dublin. The mathematical and scientific books of Thomas Howard, Earl of Norfolk (1586-1646), were given by his grandson to the Royal Society. The heraldic collections of Ralph Sheldon (1623-1684) to Heralds' College; the library in which Samuel Pepys took so much pleasure went to Magdalene College, Cambridge. Bishop Moore's books, including a little volume of Caxton quartos, almost all unique, were bought by George I and presented to the university library at Cambridge. Archbishop Marsh (1638-1713), who had previously bought Stillingfleet's printed books (his manuscripts went to Oxford), founded a library at Dublin. The immense accumulations of Thomas Rawlinson (1681-1725), brother of clergyman and antiquary Richard Rawlinson (1690-1755), provided materials for a series of auctions, and Harley's printed books were sold to Osborne the bookseller. But the trend was all towards public ownership.
While Richard Rawlinson allowed his brother's books to be sold, the best of his own were bequeathed to Oxford, and the Harleian MSS were offered to the nation at a sum far below their value. A similar offer of the great collections formed by Sir Hans Sloane, including some 50,000 printed books, together with the need for taking better care of what remained of the Cotton manuscripts, vested in trustees for public use in 1702 and partially destroyed by fire in 1731, led to the foundation of the British Museum in 1753, and this on its opening in 1757 was almost immediately enriched by George II's gift of the old royal library, formed by the kings and queens of England from Henry VII to Charles II, and by Henry, Prince of Wales, son of James VI and I, who had bought the books belonging to Archbishop Cranmer and Lords Arundel and Lumley.
A few notable book-buyers could not afford to bequeath their treasures to libraries, e.g. Richard Smith (1590-1675), Secondary of the Poultry Compter, at whose book-sale (1682) a dozen Caxtons sold, Dr. Francis Bernard (1627-1698), Narcissus Luttrell (1657-1732) and Dr. Richard Mead (1673-1754). At the opposite end of the scale, in Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl of Sunderland and Thomas Herbert, 8th Earl of Pembroke, we have early examples of the attempts, seldom successful, of book-loving peers to make their libraries into permanent heirlooms. But as has been said, the drift up to 1760 was all towards public ownership, and the libraries were for the most part general in character, though the interest in typographical antiquities was already well marked.
When George III came to the throne he found himself bookless, and the magnificent library of over 80,000 books and pamphlets and 440 manuscripts which he accumulated shows on a large scale the catholic and literary spirit of the book-lovers of his day. As befitted the library of a British monarch it was rich in English classics as well as in those of Greece and Rome, and the typographical first-fruits of Mainz, Rome and Venice were balanced by numerous works from the first presses of Westminster, London and Oxford. This noble library passed in 1823 to the British Museum, which had already received the much smaller but carefully chosen collection of the Rev. C.M. Cracherode (1730-1799), and in 1846 was further enriched by the wonderful library formed by Thomas Grenville (1755-1846), the last of its great book-loving benefactors, who died in that year, aged 91.
A few less wealthy men had kept up the old public-spirited tradition during George III's reign, David Garrick (1717-1779) bequeathing his fine collection of English plays and Sir Joseph Banks his natural history books to the British Museum, while the Shakespearian treasures of Edward Capell (1713-1781) enriched Trinity College, Cambridge and those of Malone (1741-1812) went to the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the formation of these special collections, in place of the large general library with a sprinkling of rarities, being in itself worth noting.
But the noble book-buyers celebrated by the Rev. Thomas Frognall Dibdin in his numerous bibliographical works kept mainly on the old lines, though with aims less patriotic than their predecessors. The Duke of Roxburghe's books were sold, and the excitement produced by the auction, more especially by the competition between Lord Spencer and the Duke of Marlborough (at that time the Marquess of Blandford) for an edition of Boccaccio printed by Valdarfer at Venice in 1471, led to the formation of the Roxburghe Club at a commemorative dinner. In 1819 the Duke of Marlborough's books were sold, and the Boccaccio for which he had paid £2260 went to Earl Spencer (1758-1834) for £750, to pass with the rest of his rare books to the widow of John Rylands in 1892, and by her gift to the John Rylands Library at Manchester in 1899.
The books of Sir Mark Sykes (1771-1823) were sold in 1824, those of J.B. Inglis in 1826 (after which he collected again) and those of George Hibbert (1757-1837) in 1829. The 50,000 volumes brought together by Richard Heber at an expense of about £100,000 were disposed of by successive sales during the years 1834-1837 and realized not much more than half their cost. The wonderful library of William Beckford (1760-1844), especially rich in fine bindings, bequeathed to his daughter, wife of the Duke of Hamilton, was sold in 1882, with the Hamilton manuscripts, for the most part to the German government. Their dispersal was preceded in 1881 by that of the Sunderland collection, already mentioned. The library of Bryan Fairfax (1676-1749), which had passed to the Earls of Jersey, was sold in 1885, that of Sir John Thorold (1734-1815) in 1884, his Gutenberg Bible fetching £3900 and his Mainz Psalter £4950, both of which were bought by Quaritch. The great collection of manuscripts formed by Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872) has furnished materials for numerous sales. The printed books of the Earl of Ashburnham (1797-1878) kept the auctioneers busy in 1897 and 1898. His manuscripts were sold, some to the British government (the Stowe Collection shared between the British Museum and Dublin), the German government (part of the Libri Collection and Barrois Collection, all save one manuscript of 13th century German ballads, resold to France), the Italian government (the rest of the Libri collection), Yates Thompson (1838-1929) (the MSS. known as the Appendix) and J. Pierpont Morgan (the Lindau Gospels). The collections formed by William Miller M.P. (1789-1848, (mainly English poetry), the Duke of Devonshire (1790-1858) and Henry Huth (1815-1878), are still intact.
Among the book-buyers of the reign of George III, John Ratcliffe (d.1776), whose collection was sold "by Mr Christie" in 1776, and James West M.P., (c.1704-1772), (collection sold at auction in 1773) had devoted themselves specially to Caxtons (of which the former possessed 48 and the latter 34) and the products of other early English presses. The collections of Capell and Garrick were also small and homogeneous.
Cabinet theory of book collecting
Each section, moreover, of some of the great libraries that have just been enumerated might fairly be considered a collection in itself, the union of several collections in the same library being made possible by the wealth of their purchaser and the small prices fetched by most classes of books in comparison with those which are now paid. But perhaps the modern cabinet theory of book-collecting was first carried out with conspicuous skill by Henry Perkins (1778-1855) of Hanworth Park, whose 865 fine manuscripts and specimens of early printing, when sold in 1873, realized nearly £26,000. If surrounded by a sufficient quantity of general literature the collection might not have seemed noticeably different from some of those already mentioned, but the growing cost of books, together with difficulties as to houseroom, combined to discourage miscellaneous buying on a large scale, and what has been called the cabinet theory of collecting, so well carried out by Henry Perkins, became increasingly popular among book buyers, alike in France, England and the United States of America.
Henri Béraldi (1849-1931), in his catalogue of his own collection (printed 1892), has described how in France a little band of book-loving amateurs grew up who laughed at the bibliophile de la vieille roche as they disrespectfully called their predecessors, and prided themselves on the unity and compactness of their own treasures. In place of the miscellaneous library in which every class of book claimed to be represented, and which needed a special room or gallery to house it, they aimed at small collections which should epitomize the owners' tastes and require nothing bulkier than a neat bookcase or cabinet to hold them. The French bibliophiles whom Béraldi celebrated applied this theory with great success to collecting the dainty French illustrated books of the 18th century which were their especial favorites. In England Richard Fisher treated his fine examples of early book-illustration as part of his collection of engravings, etchings and woodcuts (illustrated catalogue printed 1879), and Frederick Locker (Locker-Lampson) formed in two small bookcases such a gathering of first editions of English imaginative literature that the mere catalogue of it (printed in 1886) produced the effect of a stately and picturesque procession.
Some of the book-hoards of previous generations could have spared the equivalent of the Locker collection without seeming noticeably the poorer, but the compactness and unity of this small collection, in which every book appears to have been bought for a special reason and to form an integral part of the whole, gave it an artistic individuality which was a pleasant triumph for its owner, and excited so much interest among American admirers of Locker's poetry that it may be said to have set a fashion.
As another example of the value of a small collection, both for delight and for historical and artistic study, mention may be made of the little roomful of manuscripts and incunabula which William Morris brought together to illustrate the history of the bookish arts in the middle ages before the Renaissance introduced new ideals. Many living collectors are working in a similar spirit, and as this spirit spreads the monotony of the old libraries, in which the same editions of the same books recurred with wearisome frequency, should be replaced by much greater individuality and variety. Moreover, if they can be grouped round some central idea cheap books may yield just as good sport to the collector as expensive ones, and the collector of quite modern works may render admirable service to posterity. The only limitation is against books specially manufactured to attract him, or artificially made rare. A quite wholesome interest in contemporary first editions was brought to nought about 1889 by the booksellers beginning to hoard copies of Browning's Asolando and Andrew Lang's Blue Fairy Book on the day of publication, while a graceful but quite minor poet was made ridiculous by £100 being asked for a set of his privately printed opuscula. The petty gambling in books printed at the Kelmscott and Doves Presses, and in the fine paper copies of a certain Life of Queen Victoria, for which a premium of 250 percent was asked before publication, is another proof that until the manufacturing stage is over collecting cannot safely begin. But with this exception the field is open.
- Bill McBride: A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions, Points of Issue, and Book Collecting for Fun and Profit.
- Allen and Patricia Ahearn: Book Collecting: A Comprehensive Guide. New York: Putnam, 1995.
- Robert A. Wilson: Modern Book Collecting. New York: Lyons & Burford, 1992.
- John Carter: ABC for Book Collectors. 8th ed. edited by Nicolas Barker. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll; London: British Library, 2004 - a classic, first published in 1952.
- John Carter: Taste and Technique in Book-collecting, with an Epilogue. Pinner, Middlesex: Private Libraries Association, 1970 (The Sandars Lectures in Bibliography, 1947).
- William Rees-Mogg: How to Buy Rare Books: A Practical Guide to the Antiquarian Book Market. Oxford: Phaidon, 1985 (Christie's collectors guides).
- Allen and Patricia Ahearn: Collected Books : The Guide to Values. New York: Putnam, 2001.
- American Book Prices Current (Annual, 1894/1895 onwards).
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