How to Identify a Rare Book

Terry Hurley
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Whether you have old books in the attic, are shopping at an antique flea market or thinking of starting the hobby of rare book collecting, you may wonder how to identify a rare book.

What is a Rare Book?

There are many books that are old, antique or unusual but this does not mean that any of them are rare books. To earn the classification of being a rare book, the book must meet a certain set of criteria. However, it is the criteria itself, which has been argued many times amongst bibliophiles, that causes confusion about what is considered a rare book.

According to dictionary.com the definition of a rare book is any book that is hard to find due to its early printing date, limited issue, special character of an edition or binding, or its historical interest. Although these are sometimes the criteria for identifying a rare book, it is not always the case. Possible other factors that may make a book rare include:

  • A first edition of famous books or books of significance
  • A book that was signed or autographed by the author or someone of significance
  • If a famous person previously owned the book
  • Something of special interest or aesthetic importance about the book including:
    • An exquisite or notable binding
    • Exceptional artwork, illustrations by artists of importance or extra-illustrated works
    • Unique or unusual design
    • Fine printing or typography
  • Unusual physical characteristics such as watermarks or a pirated copy
  • The use of a special press such as a Bozart Press
  • The condition of the book

Just as the value of a book is relative to supply and demand, in many instances the rarity of a book does not mean it is considered a rare book. There are many books that are scarce in number, almost never seen in auctions or anywhere else and are considered virtually worthless because no one wants them.

How to Identify a Rare Book

Although it is sometimes confusing, there are certain things to look for when trying to identify a rare book.

First Editions

Just because a book is a first edition, which is the very first printing of a book, does not make it rare. Every book printed has a first edition. The book must meet with other criteria to be classified as a rare first edition. The problem that arises is that there is not a uniform system of numbering editions used by publishers. This often makes identifying a first edition confusing for collectors regardless of whether they are novice or experienced collectors.

Several of the ways publishers use to identify their books as first editions include:

  • If the date on the copyright page and the title page are the same
  • The words first edition, first impression, first printing or published on the copyright page
  • A specific series of numbers called a number line
  • There may be designated printings for later editions but not for the first edition

Since each publisher uses their own method of marking their first editions, the best way to determine if a book is a first edition is to use a guidebook or a bibliography of the author. An excellent guide to identifying first edition books is a Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions by Bill McBride.

Several other excellent resources for first edition identification include:

A Few General Guidelines of Potentially Rare Books

  • Books published in numbers of less than 500 and limited editions
  • Books published before 1900 on Americana
  • A fore-edge painting (a painting done by hand on the ends of the pages of a closed book opposite the spine)
  • A signed binding

Rare Book Identification Resources

  • The Rare Book School located at the University of Virginia offers courses in a broad range of topics relating to rare and old books. The courses run for a length of five days and are usually held in Charlottesville, Virginia. There are also courses held in Baltimore, Washington D.C. and New York City. This is an excellent resource for serious collectors or booksellers.
  • Book Poi
  • Rare book appraisal specialists

Although it may seem difficult learning how to identify a rare book, there are many excellent resources to help.

How to Identify a Rare Book