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What Is a Rare Book?

"Of the making of books there is no end"

Over the past 500 years, millions and millions of books, pamphlets, magazines, newspapers, and broadsides have come off printing presses. Only a small portion of these pieces, however, would be considered "rare" by specialists. There are no easy formulas or unequivocal guides to rarity. In fact, there is often no one distinctive feature that will set a rare book apart from other books. There are, however, a few factors involved which assist a collector in determining a book's rarity.

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


Characteristics of a Rare Book

Intrinsic Importance: The most essential factor in determining rarity is the book's intrinsic importance, or how important the book is considered to be in its field. Only books with some acknowledged importance will have a consumer demand that creates market value and a sense of rarity.

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 inscription.

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

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A Glossary of Rare Book Terminology

A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z

A

Americana: books either printed in America or dealing with America.

Armorial binding: a leather binding stamped with a coat-of-arms.

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B

Bibliography (as applied to book collecting): the study of books as physical objects.

Binding copy: a book whose covers are in such poor condition as to require re-binding.

Blind-stamp: a decorative impression made by a special tool which is not colored and is typically found on leather bindings.

Boards: the heavy cardstock used for most modern bindings.

Book Block: the entirety of the book without the binding.

Bookplate: a label, usually personalized, pasted into the front of a book signifying ownership.

-- See also ex-libris

Boss: metal pieces used on early books to protect the sides of leather bindings.

Breaker: an illustrated book which is in such poor condition that its only value is the plates which might be removed.

Broadside: a single printed sheet of paper, usually one-sided.

Buckram: a very coarse fabric often used for binding.

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C

Calfskin leather: the most common leather used for binding; may be dyed a wide range of colors.

-- See also leatherette, morocco leather, pigskin.

Cancel: a page which has been tipped-in to replace another page removed after binding.

Catchword: the first word on the next page, printed at the bottom right corner of each recto page of a book.

Collation: a page by page examination of a book in order to determine whether it is complete.

Colophon: a short descriptive identification of the printer or publisher of the book which appears at the end.

Condition: refers to the actual physical well-being of the book. In common bookdealer terminology, VG=very good, F=fine, G=good and P=poor. Often, two indicators are given, separated by a "/", for example: VG/F. The first indicator describes the book itself and the second indicator describes the dustjacket. It must be noted that descriptions of condition are not standardized and may vary according to the individual describing the book.

Contemporary: refers to bindings which are of the same general time-period as the book block, as opposed to bindings which were added at a later date.

Cut: an illustration printed within the text of a book; also refers to a book which has had the edges of the pages trimmed evenly so that they are flush and smooth.

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D

Deckle edges: the edges of the pages which have been left uncut.

Dedication copy: a book inscribed by the author to the person to whom the book is dedicated.

Defective: refers to a book which has a damaged binding or text block.

-- See also imperfect.

Device: a mark or insignia which identifies a particular publisher.

Disbound: a book which has had the binding removed.

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E

Edges: the outside surfaces of the leaves of a book.

-- See also gilt edge

Edition: all copies of a book which have been printed from the same typesetting or plates.

-- See also impression, issue, re-issue, reprint, state.

Endpapers: double leaves added to the front and back of the book and pasted to the binding. Leather bindings typically have marbled endpapers, publisher's bindings of the nineteenth century often had "flint-paper" (a slightly shiny paper burnished with flint), and modern editions are increasingly illustrated. Highly decorated endpapers often increase the value of the book.

-- See also flyleaf

Engraving: an illustration printed from a metal plate.

-- See also woodcut.

Ephemera: items which were not meant to last a long time, such as programs, broadsides, menus, etc.

Errata: errors discovered after the printing of a book.

Errata slip: an extra page tipped into a book which lists all the errors found in that edition.

Example: a particular copy of an edition.

Ex-library: a book which was once owned by a library.

Ex-libris: a bookplate with the owner's name or initials printed on it.

-- See also bookplate

Extra-illustrated: A book in which many prints, engravings or other illustrations have been added after publication, either professionally or by a private owner. Usually, a volume is considered extra-illustrated only if the bulk of the additions necessitated re- binding.

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F

Facsimile: a reprint of a book designed to look like the original. May also refer to pages or plates which are produced to replace missing or damaged originals.

Festschrift: a book of scholarly essays printed in honor of an individual.

Fine binding: a book bound in leather with blindstamped decorations and gilding.

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.

Flyleaf: a blank page or pages added to the front or end of a book, adjacent to the endpapers.

-- See also endpapers

Foxing: brown spots on paper caused by a chemical reaction; common in 19th century books.

Frontispiece: an illustration at the front of a book, typically facing the titlepage.

Front matter: any pages preceding the text of a book, not including endpapers and flyleaves.

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G

Gathering: a group of sheets folded together for sewing or gluing into a binding.

Gilt edge: refers to the edge of a book which has had gold applied to it; one edge may be gilt or all may be.

-- See also edges

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H

Half title: a page which has nothing but the title of the book on it, typically preceding the title page.

Hinge: the joint of a binding; it is the part which bends when the book is opened.

Hors texte, versos blank: a term referring to a plate which has no printing on the reverse, usually of a different paperstock than the text and usually tipped in.

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I

Illumination: Large initials or other decorations, often intricately designed and usually colored or gilded, appearing in the text of a book; often found in manuscripts and early printed books.

Imperfect: refers to a book which is incomplete because of missing pages, plates, etc.

-- See also defective.

Impression: the number of copies of an edition printed at any one time.

-- See also edition, issue, re-issue, reprint, state.

Imprint: refers to the publisher or place of publication.

Incunabula: any item printed before 1501; may also refer to items printed within the first fifty years of the appearance of movable type printing in a given area, such as North America.

India paper: an extremely thin paper used primarily in extremely lengthy books to reduce the bulk.

Inscribed: a book signed by an author, usually with some added notation.

Interleaving: refers to alternating blank leaves with printed ones.

Issue: a copy of an edition which has been slightly changed, such as for correction of a misprint.

-- See also edition, impression, re-issue, reprint, state.

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J

Japan vellum: a paper made in imitation of real vellum, generally smooth and glossy with a light tan color.

-- See also vellum

Juvenilia: works written by an author at an extremely young age, often as a child.

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L

Laid down: something mounted onto a blank leaf, such as an illustration.

-- See also laid in, mounted, tipped in.

Laid in: a sheet of paper inserted into a book but not attached.

-- See also laid down, mounted, tipped in.

Laid paper: handmade paper; identifiable by parallel lines made by the papermaking frame which are visible when the paper is held up to a light source.

-- See also wove paper.

Leaf: a single sheet of paper in a book; each side of the leaf is a page.

Leatherette: imitation or extremely thin genuine leather glued to cardboard, used for prayer books, etc.

-- See also calfskin leather, morocco leather, pigskin.

Limited edition: refers to an edition of a book limited to a small quantity; usually numbered and often signed by the author.

-- See also trade edition.

Limp: refers to a soft, flexible binding such as suede.

Loose: refers to a book in which the text block is coming loose from the binding.

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M

Made-up copy: a book which has been assembled from other defective copies.

Marbled: paper which has a marble pattern on it; typically found as endpapers in leather bindings.

Margin: the space between the edges of the page and the text.

Misbound: a book whose pages or plates are bound in the wrong order.

Misprint: an error made during printing.

Morocco leather: a durable goatskin leather often used for bookbinding.

-- See also calfskin leather, leatherette, pigskin.

Mounted: refers to an illustration which has been affixed to a blank page, or to a damaged leaf or plate which has been repaired by having a paper backing attached to it.

-- See also laid down, laid in, tipped in.

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O

Obverse: the front side of a leaf, i.e. the right-hand page of an open book, more commonly referred to as the recto.

-- See also recto, reverse, verso.

Offprint: a separate printing of part of another publication, such as an article from a periodical or a chapter from a book.

Offset: a light image of ink left from an adjacent page or plate.

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P

Pamphlet: a small separate work with paperwraps.

Paper boards: heavy card stock covered in paper used as a binding.

Parchment: the inner portion of the split-skin of a sheep, de-greased but not tanned and used for printing or binding of books.

-- See also vellum.

Paste down: the portion of the endpapers glued to the inner cover of a book.

-- See also endpapers.

Pigskin: a very durable leather used for binding.

-- See also calfskin leather, leatherette, morocco leather.

Pirated edition: an unauthorized edition printed and sold without payment of royalties.

Plates: whole-sheet illustrations printed separately from the text.

Prelims: preliminary leaves, which are those that appear before the main text of a book; includes title page, prefaces, etc.

Presentation copy: a copy of a book given to someone by the author, usually with an inscription.

Private press: a small press usually devoted to producing a small quantity of finely printed books.

Privately printed: refers to a book or pamphlet whose printing is paid for by a private party and which is meant for private distribution, not public sale.

Provenance: the previous ownership of an item; "pedigree."

Publisher's binding: Prior to about 1823, books were typically issued by the publisher in a temporary paper cover which was meant to be replaced by the owner, who would take the book to a professional binder for a permanent, custom covering. In 1823, cloth bindings produced by the publisher began to appear, and by 1850 they had become standard issue for most books. A book issued in a publisher's binding but which has been re-bound is generally worth less than one in its original binding, except for special presentation copies.

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Q

Quire: a gathering of printed sheets.

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R

Reading copy: a copy of a book that is complete textually but in otherwise poor condition and considered to be good only for reading, not collecting.

Re-backed: a book that has had the spine and hinges of the binding replaced.

Re-cased: a book which has had the text block either re-attached to the original binding or placed into a new binding.

Recto: the front side of a leaf, i.e. the right-hand page of an open book. Also called the obverse.

-- See also obverso, reverse, verso.

Re-issue: any issue of a book except the first.

-- See also edition, impression, issue, reprint, state.

Re-jointed: a book whose binding has been repaired but the original covers and spine preserved.

Reprint: refers to either a new edition of a book or a new impression of the same edition.

-- See also edition, impression, issue, re-issue, state.

Reverse: the reverse side of a leaf, i.e. the left-hand page of an open book. More commonly referred to as the verso.

-- See also obverse, recto, verso.

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S

Series: a group of volumes with a common theme issued in succession by a single publisher.

Shaky: a book which is no longer firm in its covers, giving way at the inside hinges, sometimes with cracked or torn endpapers.

Shaved: refers to a book whose margins have been trimmed so much that some of the text or page numbers have been cut off.

Shoulder notes: text printed in the top margin.

Side notes: text printed in the outer side margin.

Signature: in bookmaking, this term refers to all of the pages created by folding a single sheet of paper. Each page printed on a sheet of paper on a handpress would have a letter or number combination assigned to it which would indicate the order of the pages. This signature can often be seen on the bottom of the page in older books.

Signed binding: a binder's signature may be found in one of several places in a book:

1. In early bindings, initials or name may be stamped on the outside cover;
2. In books printed before 1830, a binder's ticket (printed or engraved label) may be found affixed to the front endpapers or sometimes on the title page;
3. Most often, a full name (usually not initials) will be either stamped on the inside edge of the binding or written in ink on the edge of one of the endpapers;
4. Occasionally, a manuscript note by the owner will state who did the binding.

Slipcase: a case designed to hold a book with only the spine exposed.

Spine: the "backbone" of a book, where all the gatherings are attached.

State: similar to an issue, but usually indicates a textual change rather than a correction.

-- See also edition, impression, issue, re-issue, reprint.

Stub: a strip of paper remaining where a leaf has been cut out of a book.

Sunned: refers to a book which has faded due to exposure to light.

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T

Tipped-in: refers to a plate or other item which has been glued or otherwise attached in a book.

-- See also laid down, laid in, mounted.

Tissue: an extremely thin piece of paper inserted next to an illustration to protect against offsetting.

Title page: A page showing a book's title, subtitle, author or editor, publisher and/or printer and often the publication date and place.

Tooling: a general reference to any decoration on a binding.

Trade edition: refers to an edition of a book placed for normal sale to the public, as opposed to a limited edition.

-- See also limited edition.

Trimmed: refers to a book whose pages have been cut to a smaller size than when originally published, usually for re-binding.

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U

Unopened: a book whose leaves are still joined together.

Unpaginated: a book which has no page numbers (although signatures may appear).

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V

Vellum: the skin of a calf, lamb or goat which is de-greased but not tanned and is used for either writing, printing or binding of books. The most common use in printed books is for binding, especially on items from the 16th and 17th centuries. It was not unusual, however, for publishers to print a few copies of an edition on vellum, typically either before 1520 or after 1780.

-- See also parchment, japan vellum.

Verso: the rear side of a leaf, i.e. the left-hand side of a page in an open book. Also called the reverse.

-- See also obverse, recto, reverse.

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W

Watermark: a design in the paper itself which may be seen by holding the sheet to the light.

Waterstained: discoloration and sometimes shrinkage of the leaves or binding of a book due to water damage.

Woodcut: an illustration printed from a wood block.

-- See also engraving.

Worming: small holes in paper or bindings made by insects.

Wove paper: paper made on a very fine mesh mold which shows no chain lines.

-- See also laid paper.

Wrappers: the outer covers of a paperbound book or pamphlet.

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-- glossary definitions excerpted from ABC for Book Collectors (Carter, 1992), Alibris glossary page, and Advanced Book Exchange glossary page.


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Updated: 27 April 2004, RKB
Comments: speccoll@iupui.edu
URL: http://www.ulib.iupui.edu/special/digproj/rarebooks/whatis.html

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