How to Identify a Rare Book

Updated October 8, 2021
Image of a rare book

Whether you have old books in the attic, are shopping at an antique flea market, or are thinking of starting the hobby of rare book collecting, you may wonder how to identify a rare book. Some books stand out because of their age or fame, but many rare books are a little more difficult to spot. With a few tips and a better understanding of what makes a book rare, you'll be in a great position to identify rare books when you see them.

What Is a Rare Book?

There are many books that are old, antique, or unusual, but this does not mean that any of them are rare books. To earn the classification of being a rare book, the book must meet a certain set of criteria. However, it is the criteria itself, which has been argued many times amongst bibliophiles, that causes confusion about what is considered a rare book.

According to the National Library of Scotland, the definition of a rare book isn't really clear. It can be any book that is hard to find, especially due to its printing date, limited copies issued, or historical interest. Although these are sometimes the criteria for identifying a rare book, it is not always the case.

Rare Book

Factors That Can Make a Book Rare

Possible other factors that may make a book rare include:

  • First edition - A first edition of famous books or books of significance can be rare and valuable.
  • Signed - A book can be rare if it was signed or autographed by the author or someone of significance.
  • Provenance - If a famous person previously owned the book or the story of the book's history is documented and interesting, it can have provenance and be rare.
  • Special interest - Something of special interest or aesthetic importance about the book can make it rare. This can include an exquisite or notable binding, exceptional artwork, illustrations by artists of importance or extra-illustrated works, a unique or unusual design, or fine printing or typography.
  • Unusual physical characteristics - These can include watermarks or a pirated copy and also the use of a special press such as a Bozart Press.
  • Exceptional condition - The condition of the book can make it rare, especially if it's one of few copies in good condition.

Importance of Desirability

Just as the value of a book is relative to supply and demand, in many instances, the actual rarity of a book does not mean it is considered a "rare book." There are many books that are scarce in number, almost never seen in auctions or anywhere else, and are considered virtually worthless because no one wants them. In order to be a rare book, it needs to be a book people want.

How to Identify a Rare Book

Although it is sometimes confusing, there are certain things to look for when trying to identify a rare book. If you're perusing used book shops, flea markets, or antique stores, this process can help you decide whether you might have a treasure on your hands.

1. Check for Anything Unusual and Special

On your first pass through a rare bookstore, thrift shop, or other retailer, look for things that stand out as unusual about a book. Special features make a book desirable, and it needs to be something people want in order to be rare. Look for the following:

Old books from 1891 stacked in library
  • Beautiful, quality bindings
  • Special art
  • Leather bindings in good condition
  • Books that stand out for their beauty
  • A fore-edge painting (a painting done by hand on the ends of the pages of a closed book opposite the spine)

2. Look for Signatures

Pick up the book and look at the first few pages carefully. Check for signatures. If a book is signed, it may be rare. Some authors sign lots of copies, but there are others who hardly ever sign books. Older signed books by authors who have died are more likely to be rare.

3. Figure Out if It's a First Edition

Just because a book is a first edition, which is the very first printing of a book, does not make it rare. Every book printed has a first edition. The book must meet with other criteria to be classified as a rare first edition. The problem that arises is that there is not a uniform system of numbering editions used by publishers. There may be designated printings for later editions but not for the first edition. This often makes identifying a first edition confusing for collectors regardless of whether they are novice or experienced.

Some of the ways publishers use to identify their books as first editions include:

  • If the date on the copyright page and the title page are the same
  • The words "first edition," "first impression," "first printing," or "published" on the copyright page
  • A specific series of numbers called a number line

Since each publisher uses their own method of marking their first editions, the best way to determine if a book is a first edition is to use a guidebook or a bibliography of the author. An excellent guide to identifying first edition books is a Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions by Bill McBride.

4. Look for Limited Editions

Even if the book isn't a first edition, books published in numbers of less than 500 and limited editions can also be rare. You may see text like "copy X of Y" or similar. This can indicate that only a few of the book were printed.

5. Examine the Printing Date

In general, older books are more likely to be rare than newer books. This doesn't mean that every old book is desirable, but it's a starting place. Check when the book was printed. This is not the same as the copyright, since that refers to the writer's legal ownership of the content. Instead, look for a printing date.

6. Check for Anything You Personally Collect

Many people who collect rare books specialize in something specific. If there's something you collect, such as books by a specific author or books on a certain topic like science, make this part of your rare book identification process.

Rare Book Identification Resources

Although it may seem difficult learning how to identify a rare book, there are many excellent resources to help. If you want to learn more about identifying rare books or your need to look up a specific title, try one of the following:

  • The Rare Book School located at the University of Virginia offers courses in a broad range of topics relating to rare and old books. The courses run for a length of five days and are usually held in Charlottesville, Virginia. There are also courses held in Baltimore, Washington D.C. and New York City. This is an excellent resource for serious collectors or booksellers.
  • Book Poi - Book Poi is a great resource that lists thousands of titles and offers tips for how to identify rare copies. You'll find everything from children's books to medical texts.
  • Abe Books - Although Abe Books is an online retailer, it also has some really good information about identifying specific titles and determining whether a book is rare or valuable. You can look up the title or author of a book and see photos and information about the rarest copies.

Make a Rare Book "Wish List"

Although it's fun to look through stacks of books to find some rare ones, it's also great to have some specific titles in mind on a "wish list." This can be especially helpful if you have limited time or a lot of books to sort through. If you're short on time, jot down a list of valuable books to look for at thrift stores or flea markets and make your browsing more efficient. Armed with a list, you'll love the thrill of the hunt.

How to Identify a Rare Book