Shelf life: Rare book collecting

03 July 2023

Please note: Barclays Private Bank does not endorse any of the companies or individuals referenced in this article.

A house without a library is like a body without a soul, so the saying goes.

It’s a view shared by those collectors who have dedicated years to assembling their very own private library full of rare books. These hallowed spaces lined with precious and valuable volumes offer a tantalising link to the past and a sanctuary from an increasingly digital age.

Reid Byers’ passion for books – he has had four libraries of his own – led him to write The Private Library: The History of the Architecture and Furnishing of the Domestic Bookroom. Stepping into a book-lined room, he writes, is like “easing into a hot tub, strolling into a magic store, emerging into the orchestra pit, or entering a chamber of curiosities, the club, the circus, our cabin on an outbound yacht, the house of an old friend.”

Byers’ own library is 12 shelves high and serviced by an industrial ladder at his home in Maine in the United States. 

“There is a problem in collecting, of course,” he admits. “Because when books are allowed to get together, there is always a danger that they will generate another book.”

His favourite of all the libraries he has encountered is Bishop Ken’s at Longleat House in Wiltshire, southwest England, for its “bays and nooks” which, he says, would make a “world-class hide-and-seek venue.”

Your library reflects you

A carefully curated library offers an insight into your personality and your quirks, and will have your stamp on it. That is certainly the case with Jay Walker’s The Walker Library of the History of Human Imagination in Connecticut. The 3,600 square foot private library, a wing of Walker’s home, was built in 20021. It houses around 20,000 volumes, and hundreds of museum-level books, manuscripts, maps and artefacts. Among them is a page from an original Gutenberg Bible, as well as a first edition Encyclopædia Britannica, published in 1768. 

But this should not put budding bibliophiles off. While starting out on a rare book collecting adventure can seem daunting, even Walker had to start somewhere.

Collect what you love

So where to begin? Rare book collecting is typically all about the long game.

It could take years to get your hands on a coveted title and in your pursuit of pristine first editions, there is also the financial outlay involved. Perhaps you are interested in travel. Narrowing this down further to an era, or a particular travel writer, could be a way to start.

Or maybe you are keen to go on a full-on nostalgia trip? Seeking out books you treasured during your childhood could take you down a delightful rabbit hole of discovery. 

Armed with some titles or subjects in mind, getting in touch with a reputable rare book dealer is often the next step for collectors. They can advise on what is available, pricings and things to look out for and, crucially, vouch for their authenticity. And so begins a relationship that could last for decades.

Quality, quality, quality

Pom Harrington, owner of Peter Harrington Rare Books, which has branches in London’s Mayfair and Fulham, has clients of many years’ standing.

“The point is you build up that trust in the relationship,” he says from his Mayfair premises. “I know my customers and I know the books they want.” 

When you do have an idea of what you want to collect, you should always aim to buy the book which is in the very best condition for what you are willing to pay. It may sound obvious, but a pristine copy compared with one with the merest hint of wear can make a big difference (of course, there are always exceptions). 

If you maintain a high standard across your library, you will have something to be proud of, which in years to come, could make for an impressive and desirable collection to sell or donate.

“We talk about 'location, location, location' with property, and with books it is 'quality, quality, quality',” Harrington says. “You want to get a book as close to the condition as the day it was born.” 

Add some stardust 

When collecting rare books, the holy trinity is widely considered to be: condition, completeness and, of course, authenticity. That said, there is room for manoeuvre. For example, you would not have the same exacting standards for an 18th-century book as you would for a first edition Harry Potter. 

“Basically, the older, the rarer the book, the more acceptable restoration is,” says Harrington. “It’s very normal that, say after 250 years of handling, there’s wear, and it is subject to some sort of repair. Sometimes it’s been so read and worn that the binding has disintegrated and maybe, at some point in the 19th century, someone decided to put a new binding on it. And that’s okay too, but it affects value.” 

Looking out for books that are inscribed, or reveal another link to a famous person or author, can add that extra stardust to a collection. 

“In terms of literature mainly, but it does apply to a certain degree with other books, is there an association with the book? Is there a special history that will enhance this copy? Maybe it was owned by someone famous. Is the book autographed? Is the book inscribed to somebody? Is there a presentation copy? These can all affect pricing and desirability.”

Woe betide an architect who builds a library with fixed shelving because all books are different

Storing your collection

Once you start to build your library, how you store your books is important. If treated well, these books will likely outlast you, ready to be passed on to the next generation of bibliophiles. Having specialist insurance for your collection is a given, but hopefully you will never need to use it. Keeping them safe and well is, says Harrington, “fairly simple.”

Avoid direct sunlight (over time it will bleach your books), also direct heat, extreme swings in temperature and, above all, moisture.

“Books like to be kept at normal room temperature, that’s 20 degrees and an English climate, in particular, is fantastic,” he says. “The accidents that can happen with book storage are not necessarily by fire, which everyone’s obsessed about, but water. It’s a burst pipe, and water damage. If a book sits in water for a while it’s going to get really badly damaged and there’s nothing you can do.”

For very high-value books, there are solander, or clamshell, boxes. These are custom-made and the book sits snugly inside. The book is protected from slipping around, from light and is pretty much airtight. Adjustable shelving is also a must as this will accommodate varying sizes. 

“Woe betide an architect who builds a library with fixed shelving because all books are different,” says Harrington. 

A final word…

So, what makes a good collector? Harrington is clear on one thing: the moment you know, you have joined this rarefied club.

“When you are buying a book because it’s important, because you understand it represents something, it has significance and it has meaning elsewhere, then you know you know book collecting,” he says. “When you start buying books you have never read and you still get joy out of it, then you know. Because I can guarantee you, someone with a mature book collection has not read every single book in their library.” 


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