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HIST 14203: Doing History: Theory and Practice

A guide to library research for students in Professor Burn's class (Spring 2015)

What Does "Rare" Mean?

Characteristics of Rare Books:

What makes a book rare?

Millions of books, pamphlets, magazines, newspapers, and broadsides have been published since the invention of printing more than five hundred years ago. Only a small portion of these pieces, however, would be considered “rare” by specialists. In simple terms, books achieve a degree of rarity only when demand exceeds supply. Unfortunately, there are no easy formulas for determining rarity.

Intrinsic ImportanceThe most essential factor in determining rarity is the book's intrinsic importance, or how important the book is considered  in its field. 

AgeSurprisingly to many people, the age of a book has very little to do with its value. The other factors are typically more important considerations of rarity. Dealers, collectors and librarians, however, do use some broad time spans to establish dates of likely importance: e.g., all books printed before 1501, English books printed before 1641, books printed in the Americas before 1801 and books printed west of the Mississippi before 1850. These dates are rough guidelines at best and are always subject to the overriding factors of intrinsic importance, condition, and demand.

ScarcityScarcity does not equal rarity. A book known to exist in only a few copies may have value if it has importance and is in demand. A book without importance or demand has little value regardless of how few copies survive.

ConditionCondition is a major factor in determining a book's value along with intrinsic importance, supply and demand. Condition refers to both the book's external physical appearance and the completeness of its contents. A book in "fine" condition is complete in all respects, has no tears or other signs of misuse or overuse, and is in an original or appropriate and intact binding. A book that has been rebound or is in less than fine condition must be very important or in high demand to be of substantial value.

First EditionIn the strictest sense, "first edition" refers to a copy of a book printed from the first setting of type, constituting the first public appearance of the text in that form. Subsequent changes to the printed text through corrections of the original typesetting produces different "states" and "issues" but not a new edition.

The liberal use of the term "first edition" has made it seem synonymous with "scarce" and "valuable." This is by no means the case. Most books appear in only one edition. Collectors of literary works especially are interested in first editions, and there is a lively and well- documented market for these books. Condition plays an even greater role than usual in determining the monetary value of literary first editions. If an author revises the text for a later edition, it may be of interest too.

Fine Bindings and IllustrationsA book can have physical characteristics that lend importance - a special binding, first use of a new printing process, an innovative design, an autograph or inscriptions.

- Descriptions excerpted from Your Old Books by the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the Association of College and Research Libraries

Why Study Rare Books?

Books are important objects of study not just for the content they contain. Books offer a way to experience the past. The physical aspects of books and the development of printing methods can lend insight into the culture and intellectual spirit of a specific time period. Books provide evidence about the past in terms of how books were made and used in society. Where we find advancements in printing throughout history there is almost always a major historic event that coincides.

Glossary of Rare Book Terms

Woodcut Printing: 1450-1520

This film focuses on woodcut printing. The use of woodblocks to print text had been known in the East since the 8th century. In Europe the technique was first applied to textiles, but shortly after 1400 it was adopted also for images. There is no sound in this 3 minute video. 

The Engraving Process

A demonstration by Andrew Stein Raftery, Associate Professor of Printmaking, Rhode Island School of Design. In this video Andrew Raftery creates a copper engraving with the same methods done by the old masters of Europe. 

Librarian Contacts

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Special Collections Librarians

Online Resources for the History of the Book and Printing

Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900) Digital archive of primary sources on copyright from the invention of the printing press (c. 1450) to the Berne Convention (1886) and beyond, focusing on key materials from Renaissance Italy (Venice, Rome), France, the German speaking countries, Britain and the United States. While the focus is copyright, the site is also a helpful resource in understanding printing history in Western Europe and the United States.

The Newberry Library's Book History collectionThe Newberry’s collection on the history of printing and the book arts is one of the world’s leading collections in the field. Collection strengths include the design of letter forms, calligraphy, type and type-founding, technical innovations in printing, design usage and theory, bookselling, bookbinding, papermaking, the history of book collecting, and the history of libraries.

Slash:Paper Under the Knife:Online version of an exhibition that ran from 10/7/2009 - 4/4/2010 at the Museum of Arts and Design (NY).

Book History Online (BHO) and Annual Bibliography of the History of the Book and libraries (ABHB):An online version of the Annual Bibliography of the History of the Book (and Libraries), the current international bibliography in the field of book and library history.