What makes a Rare Book Rare?

By Kevin Grace, Head and University Archivist

Johann Vogt, an 18th century bibliophile and literary historian, devised a set of criteria for determining the rarity of books. Published in Hamburg in 1732, Vogt's list of five considerations underwent several subsequent editions. The axioms stayed constant however, and they are still applicable today, more than 250 years after the appearance of his Catalogus Historico-Criticus Librorum Rariorum.

  • The less frequently that books are generally found by collectors, the fewer owners a book has had, and the difficulty one has in discovering a book and then obtaining it, makes the book more rare than others. In short, if a book doesn't appear in the marketplace very often, it acquires an aspect of rarity. Lesson: get it while you can.
  • There are no absolute standards of rarity; different books have their own degrees of importance and desirability. This isn't a science. There are various genres of books, even different versions of the same book that will influence rarity. The same standards cannot be applied to every situation. Lesson: you must do your research, compare “facts,” reach your own decision.
  • One must be aware of the factors of time and geography in determining the rarity of books. Often a book will acquire a rarity early in its existence that does not maintain over the years, and it becomes less rare, or even common. And, a book may be rare and difficult to obtain in one place, but often seen in another; and, collectors in one place for local reasons may attach an importance to a book or manuscript that may be dismissed in another locale. There are fashions in rare book collecting. Years ago a certain genre of book may have been popular to collectors and driven up the value. Now few people are interested in that genre or this author, and value drops. And, there are geographical preferences to certain subjects or authors. Lesson: determine why an author is popular or why one part of the country or world places value on a book.
  • The perceptive book mind knows these constant principles of rarity: that, manuscripts and books before 1500 will always be rare; that, books by classical authors by the leading presses of the 16th century will always be rare; that, books of Martin Luther and his contemporaries, and Bibles printed before 1545 will always be rare; that, books printed in remote lands will always be rare; that, uncensored books of obscene and depraved authors will always be rare; that, books that have been banned or burned will always be rare; that the few remaining copies of books that have perished or remain in the hands of few individuals will always be rare; that, controversial books about government and religious leaders will always be rare; that, books printed in very limited numbers will always be rare; that, very large, oversized books will always be rare; that, very small or miniature books will always be rare. And here we take a closer look at Herr Vogt'€™s criteria. Handwritten, particularly illuminated manuscripts, before the age of moveable type continue to mount in rarity. And, incunabula - that is, the first books printed because of Herr Gutenberg's development of moveable type, between 1450 and 1501 - will also increase in rarity over time. These volumes are important to the historical culture of books and reading, and are always desirable. Early Bibles are very important, more for tangible examples of the political and religious climate than for their testaments. As a general rule, though, Bibles are not considered rare unless they have a particular association with a person or event. Banned books and controversial writings always have a certain cachet that appeals to humans, to own something that might bring trouble - if book collectors wore leather jackets, the gang symbol would be a banned book (and there would probably be a secret handshake or initiation rite). It’s the touch of the forbidden that attracts us. Regarding Vogt’s axiom for oversize or miniature books – not necessarily so, but they bear noting at all times because of the unusual nature of their physical formats. Lesson: hold the notion at all times of the importance of first editions.
  • Rare books are not always of the finest condition. Perhaps they are not even worth reading. But often an inferior book in appearance or content is worth having solely because of its rarity. Lesson: know why a book has become rare and know why you want to collect it.

Collecting and using rare books are in large measure subjective ventures, whether we collect as individuals, as institutions, or as sellers. We look at the larger world around us in order to assess them in some way, but in the end it is how books reflect us as individuals. And, it is this reflection of ourselves that makes the book in its form and content such a source for passion (or vice, in the case of bibliomaniacs) so particularly enrapturing to the human spirit.