A quick primer on the world of book collecting

Here’s a quick, interesting Twitter thread from a rare book librarian that covers book collecting: Getting started, how it works, and a few resources for anyone dipping a toe in for the first time.

Book collecting as a serious hobby has always seemed a little foreign and incomprehensible to me, so it’s nice to see an entry point for how all the appraisals and preservation works, even if I’m not going to start racking up first editions in a temperature-controlled room any time soon.


Cool! This seems like great advice. I particularly like:

Collecting should be less about wanting to have and more about wanting to know.


Spend time looking.…you don’t have to buy anything at first. Go to bookstores or book fairs. Browse online. Read bookseller catalogs. See how other people describe the books you want. What do they focus on? What is important?

I obviously love books and own many but I have mixed feelings when I think of “book collecting”. It sometimes seems to look at books as objects, where things like rarity / condition / market value matter, rather than focusing on what the books contain and why they’re interesting. Though I know aspects of the physical book certainly can be interesting; of course there are many valid approaches to collecting! I won’t deny there’s often something special about physical books. I just don’t see myself ever caring much about appraisal, first editions, etc.

I think I’m more interested in curation — finding interesting books and associations between books — more so than actually owning the books. In that sense I consider any really good book / reading list (examples) in many ways at least as valuable a collection as the physical equivalent in someone’s personal library would be. To the extent such lists are publicly shared for others to learn from, I think they can even be more valuable.

Anyway I’m glad this thread emphasizes collecting based on personal passion / interests rather than on books-as-valuable-objects. And another key point:

The larger my collection grows, the more the books speak to each other. They teach me about themselves; they allow me to teach others.

Totally agree with that! “Don’t do it as an investment” also seems like solid advice :slight_smile:

BTW, she mentions the mailing list “Exlibris” in the thread — this is a cool old school mailing list with lots of academic book historian folks as well as booksellers / collectors; I subscribed I think sometime last year and it’s quite interesting, worth a look: https://list.indiana.edu/sympa/info/exlibris-l

Yeah, I agree on that one… I find myself finding books and making connections through the internet way more often than in physical spaces.

Reminds me of this discussion I just read: It’s a few bloggers reminiscing about how their book-loving childhoods in the 80s were entirely about the physical libraries/bookshelves. From the article:

The insane second-hand bookshops I was talking about at the beginning seemed like the incursion into reality of a different way of existing, and I think that’s why they infest my subconscious: as intimidating—and even vaguely disgusting—as I sometimes found their ramshackle, uncontrollable nature, they provided me with something—a physical representation of a mental alternative that was at once reassuring and provoking, maybe? It seems innately part of their actual physical reality, something that for whatever reason it’s hard to evoke through media. You could probably say the same of the aisles of a Waldenbooks or whatever the fuck your weird bookshop chain was called: myriad expressions or interpretations of human experience housed in a communal space that was, yes, often mediated through the shittiest kind of commerce, but still physical, on the Earth, connected to a time and a place and to other people, with all their horrors and failings.

Speaking for myself, I’m optimistic, because the kids I know (Jesus wept, there’s a phrase that’s a knife in the heart to write) all have their literacies—be they high or low—but I can’t help feeling it’s a shame that, increasingly, there doesn’t seem to be a physical agora for those literacies to manifest and interact in. Though they probably have their own agoras that haggard relics like us are, rightly, denied knowledge of.

It’s the internet! The internet’s our agora. And probably becoming a more effective one as it gets more niche.

BTW, she mentions the mailing list “Exlibris” in the thread

Looks like she owns/moderates it too! I haven’t gotten into it yet… Online spaces are great, but I can only add so many, haha.

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Thanks, this definitely resonates, I have lots of memories of spending time in local used bookstores as a kid. I think these kinds of physical spaces (bookstores / libraries / etc.) are super important, but also even more possibilities now, particularly, as you mention, with specific niches that may be hard to support with a physical store but can find a large enough audience online.

Re: Exlibris, I haven’t participated much but it’s been fun to see some of the discussions happening, everything from people sharing memories about book collecting, to seeking out info on obscure manuscripts, to (Tuesdays only) rare book dealers sharing their catalogs. At some point I’ll have to post something to the list about Antilibraries!

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