Understanding antiquarian books

London International Antiquarian book fairNow celebrating its 60th anniversary, the three-day London International Antiquarian Book Fair takes place at the Olympia Exhibition Centre next month, bringing together 180 leading UK and international dealers.

The Fair, taking place from June 1-3, is the jewel in the crown of Rare Books London, a new week-long festival celebrating old and rare books, with special events and behind-the-scenes activities for bibliophiles.

Dealers at the Fair will be offering everything from medieval manuscripts to modern signed first editions, allowing visitors to the fair can literally hold history in their hands as they view and buy museum-quality books, maps, prints, photographs, manuscripts, ephemera and original artwork.

If you’re new to the world of rare books, The Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association shares some essential terminology here.

First and foremost

Antiquarian booksThis term First Edition originated during the hand-press era (1450AD to the early 19th century), when printers composed text from individual pieces of metal type. The first edition of a book was the first set of copies printed from the same setting of type. If the book sold well and more copies were needed, the type was reset, creating the second edition. Beginning in the Victorian era, new technologies allowed settings of type to be preserved and reused, and the interchangeable terms impression and printing refer to copies made at a later time from the same setting.

Hand made

A Manuscript is anything written by hand rather than printed, including letters, journals, finely illuminated books, and working drafts of texts that were later printed (typewritten drafts are also sometimes referred to as manuscripts).

Signed and sealed

Books with only an author’s signature are referred to as signed, while those with a short handwritten message are inscribed. Copies of a book presented by the author to someone who had an important influence on the book, or who edited or contributed to it, are called association copies. The dedication copy is one inscribed from the author to the person honoured in the printed dedication at the front of the volume.

Formats and folds

You may see booksellers describe books as “folio”, “quarto” (4to), “octavo” (8vo) and other similar designations. These refer to the way that the printed leaves have been folded together. Folio is the largest format, with leaves that are folded only once, creating four pages of text. In a quarto the leaves are folded twice, resulting in 8 pages of text, and so on, all the way down to tiny 64mo books. Format can tell you a lot about a book – folios, for example, are very large and often used for detailed maps and fine illustrations, and they were also symbols of luxury. Octavos are more convenient for reading, and novels and popular non-fiction are usually produced in this format.

In a bind

The Hound of the BaskervillesUp until the early 19th century, most books were not bound by their publishers, but were sent out to booksellers as sets of sheets, sometimes with an inexpensive paper or card binding. The bookseller or the eventual purchaser could then have the book bound to their own taste and budget. When a bookseller describes a binding as contemporary, they mean that it was bound soon after it was published. Older books are often bound in leather, usually calf, which is smooth, or morocco, which has a prominent grain. Quarter calf/morocco means that only the spine is leather, and half means that the spine and the corners are leather. 19th-century technological innovations allowed publishers to begin producing inexpensive, decorative cloth bindings blocked in blind (stamped without colour) or gilt (stamped with metallic pigment).

Dressed to impress

The origin of dust jackets lies in the paper wrappings that mid 19th century publishers used to protect their books in transit. Some shops, particularly in London, left the paper on to protect the books from dust, and some publishers began printing titles on them. Decorative versions of these wrappers also began to be used to market special holiday and gift books. Eventually these simple, throw-away wrappers evolved into the modern dust jacket, though it wasn’t until the 1920s that book buyers began to routinely keep the jackets. Some jackets are so rare and iconic that they can substantially increase a book’s value.


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