Traditions & Culture of Collecting Articles by and about Collectors, Librarians, and Booksellers
Collecting Rare Medical Books: A Dealer’s Perspective Jeremy M. Norman
Originally published in Medical Heritage, July, September, November, 1985.
In this Article
I. Collectors Past and Present
The beauty, historical and scientific importance, romance, and monetary value of rare medical books, as well as their mystique, have an appeal difficult to resist. The modern penchant for collecting first and early editions of the classics of medical history began with Sir William Osler (1849-1919), a confirmed bibliophile and collector, whose spectacular 7600-volume library was bequeathed to McGill University. Later, notable historical medical libraries were assembled and donated to universities by Harvey Cushing (1869-1939, Yale), John F. Fulton (1899-1960, Yale), Erik Waller (1875-1955, University of Upsala, Sweden), Lawrence Reynolds (1889-1961, University of Alabama, Birmingham), John A. Benjamin (University of California, Los Angeles), and most recently, John Martin (University of Iowa). With the exception of Fulton’s, these libraries have all been described in bibliographical catalogs. Several smaller collections emphasizing medicine but also containing classics in other sciences were assembled by Herbert M. Evans (1882-1971, discoverer of vitamin E, and the growth hormone of the anterior pituitary) and sold to institutional libraries. None of these collections was described in a published catalog except one sold to the Denver Medical Society. That collection was described in an auction catalog when it was sold by Swann Galleries in 1975.
On a grander scale, Sir Henry Wellcome (1853-1936), founder of Burroughs, Wellcome & Co., collected artifacts, books, and manuscripts documenting the history of medicine throughout the world. In 1913 he created the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum and in 1924, the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine in London. This is the most important research center and museum of the history of medicine in Europe, although many older institutions, such as the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, contain spectacular holdings on this subject. A three-volume catalog of the Western manuscript holdings of the Wellcome Library has been published, as have the first three volumes of its catalog of Western printed books.
Another library created by a pharmaceutical magnate is the Lilly Library at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, founded by Josiah Kirby Lilly. The Lilly Library is a comprehensive rare book and manuscript library with important holdings in many fields. It contains a choice collection of landmarks in medical history, some of which have been described and illustrated in an entertaining but scholarly volume by W. R. LeFanu entitled Notable Medical Books (1976).
Among the most important of the American libraries is the Boston Medical Library in the Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard. The historical richness of this fabulous hoard of books, manuscripts, and art works is the result of the amalgamation of numerous important private collections donated over the centuries, together with the active collecting of institutional librarians and curators. Equally important are the vast holdings of the National Library of Medicine at Bethesda, Maryland, which have been built more through expert government acquisition than through donation. A library that deserves a published catalog is the Owen H. Wangensteen Library of the History of Biology and Medicine at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Emphasizing the history of surgery, this collection was developed through the efforts of Wangensteen and an exceptionally able curator. A more specialized but exhaustive collection of rare books, manuscripts, artworks, and scientific instruments documenting the history of electrophysiology and electrotherapy was amassed by Earl A. Bakken, founder of Medtronic, Inc., and donated to the Bakken Library of Electricity in Life, also established in Minneapolis in 1976. The late Truman G. Blocker, Jr., President of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, created in that institution the most important library of the history of medicine in the Southwest. The holdings of the University of California at San Francisco, important for both Eastern and Western medicine, were built largely through the efforts of J. B. de C. M. Saunders when he was Chancellor of the medical school.
I do not want to give the impression that collecting is strictly a pastime for institutions. The exact opposite is true. As a dealer, I estimate that only 20 per cent of my clients are libraries or museums. Some institutions may be major buyers in a given year, but most of my clients are private collectors. I have mentioned the libraries both to show you where you can consult some of the greatest rarities in medical literature and to offer a historical perspective on collecting, since most, if not all, of the institutions’ collections mentioned were built at least partly from the private collections of the past.
Who are the private collectors of today? My clients need not fear for their privacy as it is my firm rule not to divulge the names, interests, or purchases of any private customer without specific instructions. In general, however, the collecting of rare medical books follows the geography and economics of medical practice. With the tendency toward specialization today, most of my clients are specialists, and they tend to collect in the areas of their specialties. Also, because of the scarcity of truly desirable classic books and because of their continually escalating costs, the days of comprehensive collections like those formed by Osler, Cushing and Waller, documenting the entire history of medicine, are almost gone. I say almost; given enough money and plenty of patience one could still build a major library documenting the history of medicine from virtually the Middle Ages to the present. The problem is that few private physicians would be able to spend the millions of dollars that this would require today. Instead, most eventually limit the scopes of their libraries to develop depth in their specialties.
We have clients in nearly every one of the 50 states, as well as in Canada, England, Scotland, Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Israel, Syria, South Africa, Australia, Japan, and Hong Kong. The great majority of collectors are in the United States, however, and, following the geography of medical practice, we tend to have the most clients where there are the most physicians, i.e., on the East and West coasts, and in major metropolitan areas. Many are affiliated with medical schools; others are in private practice. Specialties in which collecting is currently popular include neurology and neurosurgery, ophthalmology, cardiology, dermatology, orthopedics, internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, pathology, plastic surgery, general surgery, otolaryngology, urology, and psychiatry. To my knowledge there is only one specialty in which I have failed to develop a single client-proctology. This is in spite of a well-known classic history of the specialty published in 1938 by C. E. Blanchard and ironically entitled The Romance of Proctology!
The average age of my clients seems to have gradually diminished during the 14 years in which I have been in business. When I started my firm I was 25 years old and it seemed that most of my clients were in their sixties. Now I am older, of course, but I am surprised by how many new clients in their thirties and forties we are working with, in addition to our older and more established clients. There have been very few women collectors, but as more women graduate from medical schools, I expect the number of women collectors to increase.back to table of contents
II. Where to Buy Rare Medical Books
As experienced collectors know, it is possible to find bargains at flea markets and secondhand book stores, but the chance of making a significant find in this way is remote. Today important early medical books are widely perceived as being valuable and if any turn up at a flea market or country antique show they are generally snapped up by professional book scouts and promptly offered to specialist rare book dealers. What you usually find at the country shows and secondhand dealers is second- or third-rate material. Nevertheless, many collectors enjoy browsing through country book barns and rural antique shops. If they make a good find in one out of ten weekend junkets they are satisfied.
Another dubious approach to collecting is for the private collector to buy personally at auction. There is a widespread misbelief among novice collectors that all auction purchases are bargains. Certainly many important medical books change hands at major auctions, but the great majority of the significant books sold are purchased by dealers, either for resale or as agents for clients. From long experience I can tell you that you are unlikely to be successful in purchasing the most desirable books sold in the auction of a medical library if you attempt to bid against the major dealers. Certainly they will let you buy some of the less desirable items, but to acquire the best you may have to pay more than the retail value in order to prevail.
If you want to collect rare medical books, the most effective approach is to call, write, or visit a rare book dealer who specializes in them. Many dealers issue catalogs to facilitate business by mail. I have made a specialty of advising beginning collectors, and am always willing to answer questions or to give suggestions. The rare books librarian at your medical school can provide the names of reputable booksellers. The Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, 50 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10020, can supply you with a free membership directory listing professional booksellers specializing in the history of medicine.
III. Why Collect
Collecting rare medical books appeals to physicians for various reasons. For the professional or amateur medical historian rare books on the history of medicine are the source material of history. A few of my clients have published books on medical history, and a larger number have published articles on historical facets of their specialties or have used historical illustrations in lectures and scientific papers. Most collectors, however, are not historians but history enthusiasts. In a time of rapid scientific change they gain perspective from studying the history of medicine.
Collectors also enjoy the challenge and excitement of building libraries of rare, important and often beautiful books in their fields, knowing that they own books which few other collectors have regardless of price. Some collectors gain personal satisfaction from preserving valuable historical objects and records for posterity. Others enjoy membership in prestigious book collectors’ clubs which have been established in most major cities in America. The most accomplished collectors active today, however, seem to gain the most satisfaction from building libraries in the great tradition established in our century by Osler and Cushing. Such a library is an achievement to be realized only by an elite few.
One aspect of book collecting that I am always asked about is collecting books for investment purposes. My first response to this is always that I am a rare book dealer and not an investment counselor. I sell rare books for their current fair market value and cannot predict the future. Nevertheless, in a period of sporadic inflation such as we are now experiencing, fine copies of rare books have had considerable success as inflation hedges. Some have greatly outpaced inflation. The problem with the investment approach, however, is that rare books, like other collectibles, pay no cash dividends, and are relatively unliquid. The dividends they pay are in the pleasure of ownership. In order to make a profit one must also be able to afford to hold them until the appropriate time to sell. Furthermore, it takes a few years for a collector to learn enough about the rare book market to make really informed investment decisions. In my experience only a collector who gets satisfaction from the collecting experience itself will stay with the hobby long enough to profit from it financially.
IV. What to Collect
Although many of the greatest tangible rarities in the history of medicine reside permanently in institutional libraries, I still maintain that it would be possible to collect virtually any aspect of medical history given enough patience and sufficient funds. It is also possible to build an interesting library on a relatively modest budget.
Beginning collectors frequently ask me what they should collect, and I always point out that book collecting is a personal hobby-you should collect what interests you the most. You should explore which subjects will give you the most enjoyment, and you should also play the game by the rules. First, how to define your interests. If you are uncertain exactly where your interests lie, read some medical history. You can move from the general to the specific by reading a comprehensive and standard history such as Garrison’s History of Medicine (1929 and subsequent reprints) or Singer and Underwood’s A Short History of Medicine (1962). The first is an indispensable and readily available reference work for any historian or collector. The second is more readable, but alas, it is out of print.
If you know you want to collect on a certain subject in medicine, identify some of the specialized histories of your subject and study them. Some of these may be difficult to obtain collector’s items in themselves. I always urge my clients to build comprehensive reference libraries on the subject of their interest. This will help them make the most informed decisions on which rare books to add to their collections.
Beginning or experienced collectors always get ideas from studying the published catalogs of other medical libraries, especially those formed by private collectors whom they respect. Some of the catalogs to consult first are the Bibliotheca Osleriana (1929), the Bibliotheca Walleriana (2 vols., 1955), the Catalogue of the Harvey Cushing Collection (1943), and Heirs of Hippocrates (1980).
If you think you want to build your library around the works of particular great physicians whom you admire, read some biographies of these men. Try to find out whether their writings have been collected before and whether a good author bibliography is available.
Finally, learn the rules of the book collecting game. Carter’s ABC for Book-collectors (5th ed., 1976) is a good basic guide to bibliographical terminology. A Medical Bibliography by Leslie T. Morton (4th ed., 1983), usually referred to as “Garrison-Morton,” is the indispensable handbook for identifying the first and other collectible editions of the significant landmark books and papers on all subjects of medical history. The annotated entries, arranged chronologically by subject, will probably help you develop a tentative list of desiderata of rare books you might want to purchase. Certain bookdealers’ catalogs are useful reference works in themselves. Our own illustrated catalogs typically contain annotated descriptions of about 750 items priced from $15 to about $25,000. Each catalog is prefaced by an introduction on some subject of general interest to collectors.back to table of contents
V. Types of Collections
Rare book collections are typically classified according to four categories: author, subject, time, and place, or any combination of these. I discuss each of these categories in turn.
A few of the many medical authors whose works have been actively collected are William Harvey (1578-1657, who discovered and proved by experiment the circulation of the blood), Thomas Willis (1621-75, neuroanatomist, who coined the term neurology and whose discoveries include the circle of Willis), Edward Jenner (1749-1823, discoverer of vaccination for smallpox, whose work led to the eventual eradication of the disease); Sir Charles Bell (1774-1842, surgeon and neuroanatomist, many of whose books are outstanding for their beautiful illustrations drawn by Bell himself). Twentieth-century authors whose works are presently most actively collected include, as you might imagine, Sir William Osler and Harvey Cushing. These are just a few examples out of thousands of possible choices from the medical literature of the world. Any author who publishes a significant body of work is a potential candidate for an author collection. It is easier for the beginning collector to build an author collection if his author has previously been the subject of a published descriptive author bibliography, such as Sir Geoffrey Keynes’ of Sir William Harvey, or W. R. LeFanu’s Bio-bibliography’ of Edward Jenner (1951), or the Harvey Cushing Society’s Bibliography of the Writings of Harvey Cushing (1939). The best of these bibliographies include illustrations of title pages, full descriptions of all the issues and states of each edition of each of the author’s works, translations into languages other than the original, locations of copies of the various editions, and comments by the bibliographer on the rarity of the different editions. The collector who breaks new ground by collecting an author for whom there is no adequate author bibliography frequently has the pleasure of making his own bibliographical discoveries. He might wish to write his own author bibliography at some future date, or he could publish his findings in a scholarly journal, or simply turn the information over to another collector, dealer, or professional bibliographer who will put the information to the best use. Physicians who collect on medical subjects frequently but by no means always collect on the subjects of their own specialties. An anesthesiologist might collect on the history of anesthesiology but perhaps also on the history of resuscitation and blood transfusion. The history of anesthesia is particularly collectible since its clinical history began in the nineteenth century, and most of the significant pieces can still be acquired. There are numerous good subject histories of anesthesia and its various aspects. On the other hand the development of resuscitation dates back to the eighteenth century, and its history has yet to be written. Resuscitation still contains much unexplored territory for the collector. There have been several histories of blood transfusion published in English, French and Italian; however, in my opinion, the history of blood transfusion, which began with the work of Lower in 1665, remains to be adequately treated. It is a fertile subject for both historians and collectors.
One of the most popular subjects in medical history from the standpoint of both collectors and historians is the history of neurology and neurosurgery. Hundreds of physicians seem to be interested in this field, including many collectors who actually practice in other specialties. One reason is the persistent influence of Harvey Cushing, the founder of modern neurosurgery, whose fabulous historical library has been mentioned. Also, the tradition of teaching the history of neurology within the context of clinical work at medical schools is maintained both in the United States and in England. Another factor in the popularity of the history of neurology is the usage of historical eponyms to describe syndromes such as Bell’s palsy and Parkinson’s disease. The original descriptions of these syndromes are just as valid today as when first written, they are frequently expressed in charming old-fashioned language, and sometimes they are beautifully and artistically illustrated. Cushing’s own monographs are flavored with his elegant language and illustrated with his beautiful drawings. A final reason for the popularity of the history of neurology is the existence of several fine histories of the subject, the best of which include Clarke and O’Malley, The Human Brain and Spinal Cord (1968) and McHenry’s Garrison’s History of Neurology (1969). Both are now out of print.
Publication in English of the multi-volume Hirschberg, History of Ophthalmology (1982- ), with 15 volumes planned, has served to stimulate the already active field of collecting the history of this aesthetically pleasing subject, which also includes books on optics, light, and color. Hirschberg’s encyclopedic history is the most comprehensive ever written about any medical specialty. There is also a brief well-annotated subject bibliography available in the Catalog of the Bernard Becker Collection in Ophthalmology at Washington University (1983).
Of all fields of surgery, the best-documented from the historical standpoint is plastic surgery, with the publication of the five-volume McDowell Indexes of Plastic Surgery (1977-78). These record virtually all of the monographs and journal articles relating to this specialty from the fifteenth century to the present. Volume One consists of the English translation of Eduard Zeis’ classic History and Annotated Index of Plastic Surgery, translated and annotated by T. J. S. Patterson. This is the indispensable guide for collecting the early literature of plastic surgery up until 1865, when Zeis compiled it. The subject is further documented in several other special histories, including the brief but well-documented Progress of Plastic Surgery by Wallace (1982), the classic The Life and Times of Gaspare Tagliacozzi by Gnudi and Webster (1950), and the recent Plastic Surgery, Past and Present by Gabka and Vaubel (1983). American institutional libraries with special strength in this field are the Jerome P. Webster Library of Plastic Surgery at Columbia University and the Archives of the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons at the Countway Library of Medicine, Harvard University.
Naturally, the history of plastic surgery may also be found in the histories of general surgery, both as a subspecialty of surgery itself and because many of the early contributions to plastic surgery are recorded as chapters in books on general surgery. The history of surgery in general is a fertile field for collecting. Numerous special histories and bibliographies are available. The best recent history of surgery is the massive 785-page The Rise of Surgery (1978) by the late great surgeon and professor of surgery, Owen H. Wangensteen, and his wife.
Aside from building medical subject collections by specialty, of which a few examples have been given above, certain aspects of medicine lend themselves to the subject approach. One is the history of anatomy and anatomical illustration. This tends to appeal to physicians with an artistic bent as many of the great anatomical atlases were illustrated by major artists. Indeed the whole subject of medicine in art or the history of art from the medical standpoint is one of the most aesthetically pleasing and widely popular approaches to medical history. The essential reference books for this subject are Choulant, History and Bibliography of Anatomic Illustration, translated and annotated by Mortimer Frank (1945), Thornton and Reeves, Medical Book Illustration, a Short History (1982), Rousselot (ed.), Medicine in Art (1967), and Herrlinger, History of medical Illustration from Antiquity to A.D. 1600 (1970; vol. 2 bringing the history up to the present was published only in German, 1972). Unfortunately only the Thornton and Reeves work is in print at the time of writing, but a reprint of Choulant with an introduction by this writer is now planned. Virtually all of the major medical libraries include strong holdings in the classics of medicine in art. The art museum with the strongest collections of these is the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Their Ars Medica collection emphasizes separate prints rather than book illustration.
Another interesting way to build a book collection is to frame it within a period of time. For example, in Sir William Osler’s day it was fashionable to collect the earliest printed medical books, those produced in the fifteenth century, the so-called cradle of printing. Such early books have been designated as a genre, “incunabula,” from the Latin meaning “in the cradle.” A single book printed in the fifteenth century is correctly designated as an incunabulum. Osler published a monograph entitled Incunabula Medica (1923) based on his Presidential Address to the Bibliographical Society of London. The bibliography of the earliest medical books which he appended to that address describes only books printed up to 1480. In those days medical books printed after 1480 were considered too common to be worthy of serious consideration as rarities by collectors. Today the vast majority of all medical incunabula are in institutional libraries and a private collector would never the able to assemble more than a few dozen in a lifetime. Thus the modern collector who wants to build a collection of the earliest medical books would be wise to include the sixteenth century, in which the great Renaissance medical books appeared. While few of the great medical incunabula appear on the market these days, many great sixteenth-century books, including most of the writings of Andreas Vesalius (1514-64), for example, appear on the market occasionally if one is patient. Even so, the supply of sixteenth-century medical books is steadily diminishing. In twenty years it will probably be very difficult to collect these works at any price. The time to buy them is now!
As a rule of thumb, the supply of antiquarian objects in all fields is generally perceived to be diminishing as a function of the time they were originally produced. That is, fifteenth-century books or artifacts are widely perceived to be scarcer than sixteenth-, sixteenth- are considered scarcer than seventeenth-, etc. The rationale behind this is that the volume of printing increased geometrically over the centuries. (It is only finally beginning to level off now with the development of all the competing electronic media.) While this perception of a geo-metrically increasing supply of books may be true in the generality, it may have little or nothing to do with the possibility of obtaining an individual book, as many medical or scientific books from the nineteenth century were actually produced in editions smaller than those of some sixteenth-century books. For example, the first edition of Vesalius’ monumental De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (1543) appears on the market with more regularity than Bright’s more specialized but equally prized Reports of Medical Cases (2 vols. in 3, 1827-31). In fact, the first edition of Vesalius may even be more common than the heavily used first edition of Gray’s Anatomy (1858). Even so, the Vesalius still sells for 20 to 30 times as much.
As a general rule, however, the important fifteenth-, sixteenth-, and seventeenth-century books tend to sell for higher prices than their later counterparts. Collectors with limited budgets, or collectors who want to build large libraries rather than smaller collections of early rarities, might do well to concentrate on the eighteenth or nineteenth century. A suggested topic with a discrete chronological boundary might be U. S. Civil War medicine. This can, of course, be collected from the standpoint of the Union or Confederate Medical Corps. Fewer Confederate medical imprints were produced, the editions were also smaller, and they tend to be drastically rarer than the relatively common Union medical items.
Another time-delineated American collection is that of U. S. Revolutionary War medicine from 1775 to 1781. One could also collect early American medicine before the Revolution. American medical books printed before the revolution tend to be much rarer than those published after the demand increased around 1776. It would also be interesting to collect and compare the medical books printed in England with those produced on our side of the Atlantic during this early period of American history. While the number of medical imprints produced in America during the eighteenth century was limited because of the relatively small size of the population, there was no such limit on the medical books produced in England during the same period, and any limitation on the number of eighteenth-century English medical books would have to be made by the collector himself.
In comparing the relative quantities of medical books printed in England and America during the eighteenth century we can see the value of delineating a book collection by place or location. A collection of English medical books would be vast, but if we further defined our objective by limiting our collection to English medical books printed in London we might have a manageable if very large collection. A realistic objective for a private collector might be to try to collect all of the medical books printed in an English city such as Birmingham or in an American city such as Philadelphia. Philadelphia, in particular, has a rich medical heritage and a medical collection delineated by this particular location would contain many fascinating treasures, the best-known of which would include the few medical books printed by Benjamin Franklin, such as his Some Account of the Pennsylvania Hospital (1754-61). Franklin wrote the text of the first part of this fund-raising promotional tract himself.
Moving to more exotic locales, one could attempt to collect the history of Australian medicine. The problem is that we hardly ever find Australian medical imprints of any kind outside of Australia. It would also be possible to make a small collection of Indian medical imprints. I say a small collection because the tropical climate of India is not conducive to the preservation of art works on paper. Good copies tend not to come out of India, but are occasionally found as duplicates or surplus from British libraries.
To reiterate, book collections can be classified into four types: author, subject, period of time, place, or any combination of the four categories. Private collections other than author collections usually wind up as combinations of at least two categories unless the boundaries are very narrowly defined. With an author collection it may be possible to collect or attempt to collect every edition of every book by an individual; however, almost any subject will be too large for a collector to encompass in its entirety. If he chooses a very narrow subject such as the history of surgery of the hand, on which perhaps fewer than 100 typically rare and obscure monographs were written before the twentieth century, he will probably be forced to widen his scope to encompass relevant works on orthopedic or plastic surgery. It might also be possible to collect all of the medical imprints of certain smaller places in the world, such as Lexington, Kentucky, where the early American medical school of Transylvania University was located. The problem with such narrowly defined collections is that they are very hard to build in a time of scarcity of important early medical books. In defining the scope of a collection one needs to undertake a project that is practical, so as to avoid frustration. In the beginning it is best to collect on a relatively general subject until one determines what is available. As time goes on the collector may refine his collection to reflect his more concentrated interests. Also, if investment is a factor in building the collection, it is important to plan a library that will interest future collectors when it is sold-the more obscure the author, subject, place, time, etc., the less resalability the collection may ultimately have. Your bookseller will be glad to advise you on this aspect of collecting.
Once you have decided what you want to collect, bear in mind that you should pay attention to condition when you buy books for your library. It is true that a mediocre copy of an expensive book will cost you drastically less than a fine one, but this sort of a “bargain” will always remain a bargain. Always avoid incomplete copies unless you are absolutely positive that you will never be able to afford a complete copy of the work in question or unless the book is so rare that you may never have a chance to buy a complete copy. If you do buy a defective copy but would like to have a better one, make an agreement with the dealer that you will be able to trade your defective copy in for credit if he locates a better copy.
As a rule try to buy the finest copy of a book that you can afford. A copy in a binding dated within fifty years of the book’s publication (called a “contemporary binding” in dealers’ catalogs) is usually but not always preferable to a rebound copy. A rebound association copy that belonged to an important early physician or other famous person might be more valuable than a copy in a contemporary binding, however. So might a presentation copy bearing an autograph presentation inscription from the author. A copy in a modern binding replicating a binding from the period of the book’s publication is preferable to one inappropriately rebound.
Naturally you should always aim to obtain the first editions of the books you are looking for, but do not neglect later editions if they are textually or typographically significant, or if they have association value. Remember that interesting later editions or translations, for example, add depth to your collection of first editions.back to table of contents
VI. Taking Care of Your Collection
Over the centuries books have proven to be very durable objects. If simply placed on a shelf out of direct sunlight in a room with medium temperature and humidity there is no reason why most books should not survive for hundreds of years. The ultraviolet rays in sunlight fade the spines of books just as they fade your furniture. The process of fading occurs so slowly that you will not notice it until one day you look at a book and compare the color of the spine with the covers of the same book which have been protected from the sunlight. By then the damage is done.
The truth is that books will survive even a fair amount of mistreatment, but make sure that they are not subjected to excessive heat or excessive humidity, as well as excessive light. Too much heat will dry the books out, but excessive moisture is even more dangerous. Books absorb atmospheric moisture like sponges and can become infested with mold if kept in a room that is too damp. If you think you might have a problem in one of these areas, there is no cause for alarm. Damage from excessive heat or moisture occurs gradually and you have time to correct the problem. Your aim should be to maintain a relatively constant temperature in your library at a level comfortable to you while maintaining a humidity level of about 50 per cent.
No matter how well you maintain your library environment leather bindings have a tendency to dry out, and dry bindings should be treated with an approved leather dressing when necessary. If you take good care of your books, such a treatment may be necessary only once every ten years or so, and in any case applying the leather dressing is a simple and relatively pleasant procedure you can do yourself, Recipes for approved leather dressing and discussion of other restoration techniques can be found in Horton, Cleaning and Preserving Bindings and Related Materials (1967).
Because most of the stress on a binding occurs on the hinges, it is very common for the hinges of bindings on old books to require repair. Sometimes a binding will have deteriorated over the centuries to a point where the book should be entirely rebound. In other instances there may be stains on some pages of the text which you would like to have removed. Given a skilled restorer, there is little that cannot be accomplished to improve the condition of a worn or damaged book. However, I cannot emphasize too strongly that even professional restorers have varying degrees of skill, and for the best results you must place your book in the hands of the appropriate restorer. This requires understanding the strengths and limitations of various restorers and binders. Second, the restorer must be given instructions to undertake restoration that is appropriate for the book involved. This requires knowledge of bookbinding styles appropriate to the date and place of the book’s origin, as well as an appreciation of what style of binding will produce the most successful result for the particular book at a price relative to the value of the book. No matter how splendid the results, there is no point in spending $500 to restore a $150 book.
Successful restoration of books is one of the most aesthetically satisfying aspects of book collecting and bookselling. In my firm we contract out the restoration of hundreds of volumes each year. Successful restoration will enhance the value of books in your library. On the other hand, inappropriate restoration can make a valuable book considerably less valuable. When in doubt, leave the book alone until you can get professional advice from a bookseller or rare books librarian whom you trust. A rare books librarian can put you in touch with competent restorers. For a small fee the bookseller may be willing to supervise the restoration of your book by contracting the work out to a restorer with whom he customarily works.
Unlike certain other collectibles such as coins, stamps, silver, gemstones, etc., insurance of a rare book collection is not particularly complex or expensive. While thefts of rare books are on the increase, the primary targets of book thieves have tended to be institutional libraries, and the risk of having rare books stolen from your home is probably much less than that of having your television, hi-fi, or personal computer taken. With rare coins, stamps, gems, and other high-theft-risk items, insurance rates have become so prohibitive that many collectors simply forego insurance and store their collections in safety deposit boxes. For most of my clients, as well as myself, not to be able to keep and enjoy a private rare book collection at home would be a great loss. Fortunately, virtually any rare book collection stored in your home can be insured at low rates. If the value of your collection is nominal you may simply wish to add its value to that of the personal property you are insuring in your house. When the value of your library becomes more significant, the least expensive and most reliable way to insure it is usually with a fine arts policy. This requires an inventory of your books together with an individual appraisal of their current fair market value. Most antiquarian booksellers will appraise your library for insurance purposes at a nominal fee, based on the time involved. Once you have this appraisal it can be periodically updated and if you ever suffer a loss it will be much easier for you to be fairly compensated by the insurance company than if you wait for the loss to be appraised after the fact.
VII. Why I Am a Rare Book Dealer
I went into the antiquarian book business because I became fascinated with early books and manuscripts and the mystique surrounding their rarity. Fourteen years of dealing in the great classics documenting landmark achievements in the history of medicine and the sciences from the Middle Ages to the present have put me in contact with many of the most accomplished and successful physicians in all aspects of medical practice, private, academic, and industrial. At the same time I am making a special effort to work with interns and residents in their initial forays into collecting. What all of my clients seem to have in common with me is an interest in history directed toward medicine and the wish to gain a better perspective on our fast-changing times by the use of an historical approach. Beyond that, the mystique of rarity always remains. There is a special pleasure in possessing something of great cultural value which only a few other people will ever own.
Rare books, manuscripts, and prints in the history of medicine come in all shapes and sizes and in all price ranges. Price and numerical scarcity are not always proportional, as the books most difficult to obtain are not always the most expensive, and some of the most expensive books appear on the market fairly frequently. For the collector, and for the dealer like myself, however, the greatest pleasure in collecting is the chase after the most elusive rarities. To capture a truly rare, desirable and important book after many years of patient if frustrating searching is a real victory.back to table of contents
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