Wise words on values from an Edwardian book collector

Jot 101 The Private Library cover 001

A.L.Humphreys was a miscellaneous writer and bibliophile whose knowledge of books and book collecting surpassed that of most dealers and librarians. In The Private Library (1897 ) he has sound and revealing things to say, and although, as one reader has inscribed in pencil on the title –page of our copy, ‘ since 1897 many views expressed here have been superceded ‘, Humphreys is still worth reading.  One of his wisest chapters is entitled ‘ Book Values ‘. Here are some of the highlights from it:


‘…It would be impossible to tell all the causes which go toward determining the value of a book and which cause it to fluctuate in price. There is but one way to arrive at a reliable knowledge of book values, and that is to begin stall-hunting as soon as you leave school or college and continue until past middle age, absorbing information from stalls, from catalogues, and from sale-rooms. The records of prices at which books have been sold in the auction rooms, and which are regularly issued, are useless in the hands of an inexperienced person. To make up your mind on Monday that you are going to begin a career of successful bargain-hunting and book collecting is only to be defrauded on all the other five remaining days. Experience must be bought, and an eye for a good copy of a book, or for a bargain of any kind, only comes after years of practice…


According to Clement1), there are two sorts of rarity in books; the one absolute, the other conditional or contingent. There are rare editions of very common books. There are books of almost common occurrence in public libraries, which are rarely seen in the market. A book or an edition of which but very few copies exist is called ‘ necessarily rare;’ one which is only with difficulty to be met with—-however many copies may be extant—he calls ‘ contingently rare. ‘

Under the first head he classes; 1) Books of which few copies were printed; 2) Books which have been suppressed; 3) Books which have been almost entirely destroyed by casual fire , or other accident;4) Books of which a large portion of the impression has been wasted—usually for want of success when published; 5) Volumes of which the printing was never completed;6) Copies on large paper or vellum.


Under the second head he enumerates; 1) Books on subjects which interest only a particular class of students; 2) Books in languages which are little known ; 3) Heretical, licentious, and libellous books; 4) First editions of a classic author from MS; 5) First productions from a printing press in a particular town; 6) The productions of the celebrated printers of the sixteenth century; 7) Books in the vernacular language of an author who printed them in a foreign country; 8) Books privately printed; 9)Works, the various parts of which have been published under different titles, in different sizes, or in various places.


Clement then analyses the degrees of rarity thus: 1) Every book, which is no longer current in the trade, and requires some pains in the search for  it, is ‘ of infrequent occurrence;’ 2) If there are but few copies in the country in which we live, and those not easily met with, it is ‘ rare;’ 3) If the copies are so dispersed that there are but few of them, even in the neighbouring countries, so that there is increased difficulty to procure them, it is ‘ very rare;’ 4) If the number of copies be but fifty or sixty, and those scattered, it is ‘ extremely rare;’ 5) And finally, every work of which there are not ten copies in the world is ‘ excessively rare.’ In all these cases, it must be supposed that the book is a book sought for, and that the seekers are more numerous than the sought.2).


Fashion determines much as to price. As soon as it becomes a fad to collect books relating to some particular subject, competition instantly steps in and prices go up. It may be well to state, for the benefit of a very numerous and initiated public, that, because a book is old, it is not necessarily rare. There are many thousands of people who have most imperfect and valueless books, mostly on theology, or some controversial abominations, and these people spend days wasting their own and booksellers’ time in seeking to sell at prices which their own imagination alone has determined is right. Distrust the advertisements of large paper editions. Very few of them are worth purchasing, and very few, indeed, increase in value. Find against the first- edition craze, which is the maddest craze that ever affected book collecting. Again and again it must be repeated , and cannot be gainsaid, that a first edition maybe the best, but in most cases it is the worst. In every case, inquire and find out which is the best edition as to completeness, good paper and print, and safe editing, if such has been necessary, and then purchase a copy of that edition. One remark finally. The prices of all good books are going up, and anyone who lays out money with care within the next ten years will have the enjoyment of his library and a good investment as well.

  • Clement, Bibliotheque curieuse
  • Edwards, Memoirs of Libraries, ii 647 -64             [RM. Healey]

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