From our rare book vault: What makes a book rare?

When you hear the words “rare book,” you might think of an old, valuable book that’s hard to find. That’s a pretty good general definition, but let’s take a closer look at some factors that can make a book “rare”:

Age

Although old books are often rarer than new books, age can be relative. The first printing press did not arrive in Canada until 1751—about 300 years after the first books were printed in Europe. A book printed in France in 1760 might not be considered very old. By contrast, one printed in Canada in the same year is extremely old, in Canadian terms. And, at Library and Archives Canada (LAC), we consider anything printed in Canada before 1867 old enough to go in the Rare Book Collection.

Provenance

A book’s provenance is the history of its origin and ownership. A book once owned by a famous person may have added value, particularly if the owner signed it or made notes in the margins.

Coloured photo of a book’s front inside cover, with William Lyon Mackenzie King’s inscription dated September 8, 1894 on the right page. The opposite page has a Public Archives Canada/Archives publiques Canada book plate.

William Lyon Mackenzie King’s inscription on the front page of An Introduction to the History of the Science of Politics by Sir Frederick Pollock. Source

Physical condition

A book in perfect condition is more desirable than one with a detached cover and missing pages. Maps or illustrations, or an intricate binding may also add to a book’s rarity. Old books do not always live their entire lives between the same covers, and it is common to find several copies of the same book that look different on the outside.

Scarcity

If there aren’t many copies of a book, it is, by definition, rare. Books printed in editions of fewer than 300 copies generally go into LAC’s Rare Book Collection, regardless of their publication date.

Significance

Some books, such as first editions of well-known novels, have more historical value than others. However, significance can be subjective; collectors may see value in a little-known edition of a favourite author’s work, while others might look at the same book and see no value at all.

That being said, a book might have all these qualities and still not be considered “rare” if no one is interested in it. In the end, rarity, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder.

Visit our Facebook album for illustrations of some of these points.

Stay tuned for upcoming articles as we explore the hidden gems in LAC’s rare book vault!

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