Book Collecting: Tips for Beginners
- Collect what you love – the best book collections reflect the personalities and interests of their owners. With effort and a little luck the hobby can be financially rewarding, but like all investments it’s never a sure bet. Those who reap the greatest rewards are usually those who buy the books they love.
- Our books will in all likelihood outlast us, so it’s many collectors’ philosophy that they are paying not for the book itself, but the privilege of preserving it for the next generation.
- Condition is one of the most important considerations in book collecting, so buy at the best condition possible within your budget. It’s generally better to have a small collection of superior quality books than a large collection of lower quality. Also make sure that you have a safe place to store your books – they should be kept out of direct sunlight, away from radiators and moisture, and not exposed to swings in temperature.
- Pick a specific collecting area. Starting with something as general as “photography books” can be overwhelming. Instead, narrow it down to “photographs of the American West” or “late 20th-century fashion photography”. You can always expand from this as you develop your collection, or stop and start over with an entirely different topic.
- Don’t be afraid to be original. It’s exciting to collect in a niche subject area, and you’ll have less competition for material. It can also make your collection more appealing when the time comes to sell or donate.
- Look at books. The internet has made it easy to collect from home, but you should still spend as much time as possible viewing books in person. Become a regular at local rare book shops, which can be discovered via the Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association (Britain), the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, and the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers. These organisations also maintain lists of upcoming bookfairs, which are a wonderful way to see books and to make connections with dealers from around the world.
- Be extremely cautious about purchasing books from online auction sites, as it can be difficult to return them if there is a mistake in the description. Dealers who are members of the organisations listed above abide by strict professional standards regarding descriptions and return policies.
- Read about books. You can start with general volumes on book collecting and book history: John Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors is one of the best guides (a free .pdf is also available via ILAB), and Nicholas Basbane’s A Gentle Madness is a humorous, in-depth look at the hobby. For an academic approach to the history of printed books the best starting point is The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing, 1450-1800 by Lucien Febvre and Jean Henri Martin. Additionally, our website features a glossary of rare book terminology as well as original biographies of some of our most popular authors.
- Familiarise yourself with the reference material in your subject area, particularly the bibliographies, which describe important editions of books and often provide information on their publishing history, scarcity, and historical or literary importance. The Oak Knoll shop in Delaware is a particularly good source for books about books.
- Sign up for dealer newsletters, online catalogues, and updates for books matching your interests (click here to sign up for our catalogues). Most of the large auction houses also provide these types of services. Reading catalogues, even if you’re not planning on buying from them, is a great way to educate yourself about the market.
- If you’ve been collecting for a little while and find that you really enjoy the hobby, consider taking a course at one of the rare books schools located in Virginia, California and London.
For more on book collecting see our other blog posts: