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.
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 Importance: The most essential factor in determining rarity is the book's intrinsic importance, or how important the book is considered in its field.
Age: Surprisingly 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.
Scarcity: Scarcity 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.
Condition: Condition 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 Edition: In 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 Illustrations: A 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
The Rare Book Collection consists of over 300,000 titles ranging in date from the fifteenth century to the twenty-first. Almost all of the Library’s pre-1800 titles are located in Special Collections, as are many books from the early decades of the nineteenth century. Later printed books that are scarce, have significant bindings, illustrations, or ownership history, are also part of the rare book collections. Other criteria for inclusion include important early works in the history of a particular subject or geographical area and books that form part of a comprehensive subject collection.
Areas of strength in the Rare Book Collection include the history of science and medicine, English and American literature, history, and economics, contemporary poetry, historical children’s books, Jewish life and culture, theology, Renaissance humanism, and the printed works of Frederick Chopin.
Monday through Friday: 9:00 am to 4:45pm.
When classes at the University of Chicago are in session, we are open until 5:45pm on Tuesday and Wednesday. We are not open Saturday or Sunday.
The Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center is located on the first floor of Regenstein Library: 1100 East 57th Street, Chicago, IL 60637