The Essentials of Book Collecting

An Essay in Parts

by Robert F. Lucas

Part   1 - Introduction
Part   2 - Importance of priority relative to book collecting
Part   3 - Jargon - Reading a catalog description
Part   4 - Jargon - Condition and its importance
Part   5 - Bibliographies and other useful references
Part   6 - Rarity & scarcity and supply & demand
Part   7 - Ephemera - what is it and is it part of book collecting
Part   8 - Understanding book values & pricing
Part   9 - Some physical aspects of the book - bindings & paper
Part 10 - Book illustrations - variety of & illustrators
Part 11 - Investing in Antiquarian Books

Part 6 - Rarity & scarcity and supply & demand

There are many rare books for which there is virtually no market, i.e. Arthur Deco's "Forty Years of My Poetry" which Art brought to a vanity publisher in 1965 and paid for the publication of 200 copies. Only Art's cousins are looking for a copy; even his local library has no interest in the book. To take this concept a step further, there are thousands of titles of older fiction, most of which went through only one printing and for which there is no interest, unless a scholar or bibliographer is studying that area of fiction.

In general, there is a lack of demand for old text books, old bibles, many self-help titles, long out-of-date technology handbooks, old encyclopedias, poetry by unknown poets, older fiction by unknown authors and some local business histories; and many of these books are either rare or scarce. In other words, not every rare book is valuable.

Another misconception is that every first edition is collectible and valuable. One has only to understand that every book has a first edition and only popular or successful titles have more than one printing to see that not every first edition is desirable for definitions of edition and printing). One could assemble an interesting (?) and fascinating (?) collection of esoteric, undesirable "rare" books for which there is little or no demand.

The concept of a "rare book" is easy to comprehend — it is a book which is seldom encountered and presumably exists in very small numbers. To define the term "rare book" is more difficult — I prefer to define it based on the frequency it is seen by the bibliographer, collector or antiquarian bookseller who is searching for copies on a continual basis. A rare book is one encountered only occasionally by those working with and/or collecting books in the specific genre. How frequently? — that is the question that separates a "rare book" from a "scarce book".

A book which is encountered about once every five years or less frequently is a rare book (in the case of a specialized bookseller, in his/her stock) (in the case of a collector — having a specific opportunity to purchase the book) (in the case of a bibliographer, locating a "previously unrecorded" copy). A very scarce book might be encountered more frequently, but less often than once a year, perhaps once every two to four years. A scarce book is normally encountered approximately once a year by those actively seeking it. An uncommon book may be in the stock of a specialty bookseller four or five times a year, but is not always readily available as is a common book. Theoretically you should have no problem finding a fine copy of a common book at any time, an uncommon book may take a bit of searching.

These artificial "standards" provide you with at least some guide to understanding rarity and scarcity, but obviously are only a relative guide. A book you, as a collector, have the opportunity to purchase ten times per year obviously is not rare nor is it scarce. When an antiquarian bookseller has five copies of a specific title for sale during any one year, it is not a rare book nor is it scarce. There can be exceptions to the rule — we once had an opportunity to buy three copies of a rare whaling narrative at one time from a collector who had been fortunate to be able to locate that many copies during a decade. During more than twenty five years of bookselling, we have only had one other copy of that same title.

The Internet with its speedy international communications will probably make scarce and even rare titles more accessible and the frequency of encounter will increase, thus a book which might have been available for purchase only once every five years might be encountered once every three years! Another factor that occasionally has an affect on level of scarcity is the "sudden" appearance of an accumulation or quantity of a previously rare or scarce book. This seems to happen most often with pamphlets and broadsides. A carton full of a previously scarce bicycle catalog or a Civil War regimental history or a stack of 200 broadsides announcing the formation of a company of gold miners in 1849 may be found in an attic and soon after one starts to see clean, crisp, fine copies of these scarce or even rare items appearing on the market. This type of occurrence obviously changes the status of the item, and although it may still be uncommon and still desirable in your collection — it is no longer scarce or rare.

When a scarce or rare item is offered for sale in fine condition at a price which seems too good to be true, you might inquire whether a large quantity of the item has appeared on the market. Even if that is the case, you probably should still purchase the item if it fits well into your collection and you like the price. Accumulations like these often "disappear" into collections in fast order and the item almost as suddenly again becomes much more difficult to obtain.

When you are just starting as a book collector, you do not have the luxury of one or two decades of experience as a collector and you must rely on antiquarian book catalogues, bibliographies, annual compilations of auction records and national bibliographic card catalogues such as the pre-1956 National Union Catalogue or the British Museum Catalogue to assist you in determining the relative scarcity of a book.

Many bibliographies list locations (libraries) which hold particular titles. Sometimes the bibliographer, rather than attempting to locate every known copy, limits the locations to a few as examples of where to find the item. Even when the bibliographer attempts to locate every known copy, there will usually be many unreported copies not listed. Be careful when using bibliographies as a guide to scarcity and read the preface and/or introduction to determine the bibliographer's intent.

One can use a reference such as Milton Drake's "Almanacs of the United States" as a relative guide to scarcity. Drake lists 20 or 30 or even more locations for reasonably common almanacs, but when he locates only one copy, the almanac is probably very scarce and possibly rare. When he locates only three or four copies the almanac is probably scarce. Use bibliographies such as Drake as a guide to "relative" scarcity.

Wright Howes's "U.S.iana (1650-1950) A Selective Bibliography"makes no attempt to provide library locations for books, but does provide a "value symbol" for each item listed. The values associated with each symbol are now out-of-date, but the "value symbols" do have value as a measure of relative scarcity.

a — "mildly scarce, obtainable without much difficulty"

aa — "quite scarce, obtainable only with some difficulty"

b — "mildly rare, obtainable only with considerable difficulty"

c — "quite rare, obtainable only with much difficulty"

d — "very rare books, obtainable only with great difficulty"

dd — "superlatively rare books, almost unobtainable"

Personally we do not regard most "a" rating books as scarce, we would categorize many of them as uncommon or common, but most "aa" books are scarce and books with a rating of "b" or higher are usually rare books which are not easy to obtain.

Another way of determining relative scarcity is to use the annual compilations of book auction records such as "American Book Prices Current". Because such compilations usually exclude common items, one has to be cautious about making extrapolations. If you look through the last ten years of auction records and find no copy of a particular title listed- it is probably either very common or rare. One would be better off to find one copy listed in the last ten years rather than no copies.

When at least one copy of a title is listed in virtually every year of the auction records, one can assume that it is neither very scarce nor rare. When a copy is listed only once every five years, the item is probably at least very scarce and possibly rare. If you find a listing only once every ten years, the book should probably be considered rare. If multiple copies of a book are listed every year, the book can still be considered scarce and desirable and is probably very much in demand or it wouldn't be consigned to auction so frequently. One must remember that most auction house are not interested in offering common books, thus most titles found in the auction records are at least uncommon and probably scarce.

We find the pre-1956 imprints National Union Catalogue (NUC) valuable in determining relative scarcity. The NUC with its huge number of volumes often takes up a whole wall of book shelving in many libraries and is a compilation of the holdings of all reporting libraries (hundreds, if not thousands of libraries in the United States). Most large college and university libraries and most major city libraries have the NUC.

In general, when there are only one or two or three locations given for a particular item, the assumption can be made that the item is rare. When there are a reasonable number of holdings listed — from three to ten the item is probably scarce (very scarce might be represented by 4 or 5 locations. When there are quite a number of locations, 11 to 20 locations, the item may be considered uncommon in most cases. When there are 20 to 30 or more locations, the item is probably common. We find that certain areas such as children's books and cook books, the generalizations may not hold up due to fewer holdings in these areas in most libraries, i.e. a common cookbook may have only 10 locations listed. Please remember that we are making generalizations and that they are meant to be used only as a rough guide.

Antiquarian booksellers catalogues may also be used as a guide to scarcity, but be careful with your assumptions. Do not assume that because you did not find your favorite bird book listed in any of the ten ornithology catalogs you own, that the book is rare. In fact, the book may be so common or of so little demand that the natural history booksellers seldom catalogue it.

Perhaps one of the best ways to use bookseller catalogs as a guide to scarcity is to rely on the expertise of the antiquarian bookseller and make note of items he or she list as "very scarce" or "rare". Obviously a decade or more in the business of selling antiquarian books provides the bookseller with the requisite experience for making knowledgeable judgements about scarcity (particularly in the specific specialty areas of that bookseller). Equally obvious would be that the experience found in a catalogue number one would not be the same as catalogue number twenty by the same bookseller.


Part   1 - Introduction
Part   2 - Importance of priority relative to book collecting
Part   3 - Jargon - Reading a catalog description
Part   4 - Jargon - Condition and its importance
Part   5 - Bibliographies and other useful references
Part   6 - Rarity & scarcity and supply & demand
Part   7 - Ephemera - what is it and is it part of book collecting
Part   8 - Understanding book values & pricing
Part   9 - Some physical aspects of the book - bindings & paper
Part 10 - Book illustrations - variety of & illustrators
Part 11 - Investing in Antiquarian Books

Books and Book Collecting