Why Rare Book Collectors Like the Personal Touch

On marginalia, annotation, and other book enhancements
Courtesy Joel Silver

In his copy of Merle Johnson’s American First Editions: Bibliographic Check Lists of the Works of 199 American Authors (Third Edition. New York: R.R. Bowker Company, 1936), book collector Thomas Warburton added manuscript annotations to the text and inserted hundreds of leaves of clippings from booksellers and catalogues, as well as additional leaves of manuscript notes. 

It’s not easy for us to explain to non-collectors why we’re attracted to books. We each collect for different reasons, and we have a variety of reasons for buying the books that we do. 

We acquire some of them for the information that they contain, and we might purchase others because we’re attracted by certain physical characteristics. My own principal collecting fields are bibliographical reference works and books about books, with an emphasis on the Anglo-American bibliographical and collecting traditions. Condition and appearance are important factors in my choices, and though I agree with the dictum of the late Bernard H. Breslauer that bibliographical reference works “need not be scruffy in appearance,” I, like most collectors, haven’t been able to follow Breslauer’s practice of commissioning designer bindings for some of the books that I add to my collection.

But an even more important attribute for me, on the occasions upon which the opportunity has arisen, is any evidence of interaction with these books by prior owners. These interactions can range from a laid-in or tipped-in letter or leaf of notes, to the placement in the book of numerous catalogue or newspaper clippings or other items, to the writing of extensive and detailed manuscript annotations. In the case of additional material inserted into books, many collectors have encountered “extra-illustrated” (also known as “Grangerized”) copies of books or sets, in which numerous prints, letters, ephemera, and other printed or manuscript materials have been inserted.

While some of these were created by, or at the direction of, the owner of the book, the more elaborate examples were, especially from the mid-19th century or later, often assembled by booksellers, who sometimes had a specialty in the creation and marketing of these books. Some of these volumes contain some very interesting material, but as far as I know, this kind of elaborate and purposeful extra-illustration was seldom applied to bibliographical reference works.

Courtesy Joel Silver

Whitman collector Harriet C. Sprague annotated this copy of A Concise Bibliography of the Works of Walt Whitman, With a Supplement of Fifty Books About Whitman (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1922) by Carolyn Wells and Alfred P. Goldsmith. It was also inscribed by the authors to Sprague. 

For most collectors of previous generations, books with extensive manuscript notes of earlier owners were viewed as defects, unless the particular copy could be connected with someone who was famous. Though this is still the case for most books of the recent past that contain highlighting, underlining, or marginalia, I hope that bibliographical works can be viewed differently by collectors. Outside of institutional collections, the market for these books has always been relatively small, and for those interested in the subject, the work of any owner of a bibliography or catalogue who has gone to the trouble of selecting and acquiring the book, and then writing or inserting other material in it, deserves our attention, even if we’re not able to determine their identity.

Annotated author’s copies of books in all subjects, including reference works, have long been sought after and collected, but beyond these particular copies, there are many other interesting copies that appear on the market that are worth seeking out and adding to our collections. In some instances, the marginalia of an author or other owner/annotator have been preserved when that particular copy served as the basis for a reprint. 

Examples include Frederick A. Goff’s Incunabula in American Libraries: A Third Census of Fifteenth-Century Books Recorded in North American Collections (Millwood, New York: The Bibliographical Society of America and Kraus Reprint Corporation, 1972); Bibliographie d’éditions originales et rares d’auteurs français des XVe, XVIe, XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles, contenant environ 6,000 fac-similés de titres et de gravures by Avenir and Stéphane Tchemerzine (Paris: Hermann, 1977), with annotations by French bookseller Lucien Scheler; and the lithographic reprint of the first eight volumes of Catalogue of Books Printed in the XVth Century Now in the British Museum (London: The British Museum, 1963), which reproduced the British Museum’s working copy, which contained annotations by many individuals, principally bibliographer Victor Scholderer.

The marginal notes made by the owners of bibliographical works usually survive as long as the books exist, though they may not be studied unless the annotator is known and is considered to be someone with knowledge of the field. But even when the identity of the annotator can’t be determined, these notes and markings can reveal additional information that isn’t recorded elsewhere, and while not all such notes are illuminating or even accurate, examining them closely is often worthwhile. 

Courtesy Lilly Library, Indiana University

Manuscript annotations by Sydney Cockerell, director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, from 1908 to 1937, are in this copy of Catalogue of Manuscripts and Early Printed Books from the Libraries of William Morris, Richard Bennett, Bertram Fourth Earl of Ashburnham, and Other Sources: Now Forming Portion of the Library of J. Pierpont Morgan: Manuscripts by M. R. James (London: Chiswick Press, 1906). 

Though marginal or interlinear manuscript notes become a physical part of the book, the longevity of loosely inserted physical material is much more tenuous. These insertions can range from one or two related or unrelated items placed in a book (which may even include grocery lists or currency), to the addition of so much material that the volume is stuffed almost to its bursting point. In some cases, a previous owner has made notes on these insertions, which, for example, might identify and date a clipping from a bookseller’s catalogue, but in many cases they haven’t, and it may take some ingenuity to posit a reason that they’ve been placed there.

Examples of evidence of an owner’s interaction with reference books are well worth looking for, both for the information that they contain and the evidence of how these books have been regarded and used. You may run into bibliographical works with manuscript annotations or additional inserted material while browsing in person, but you’re more likely to encounter them in online or printed bookseller’s catalogue descriptions. Unless the bookseller is a specialist in bibliographical works, the descriptions of the notes or insertions will usually be fairly general, and while there may be a photo of the most copiously annotated pages or openings, you really won’t know what you’re getting until you order the book and have the chance to examine it yourself.

As beginning collectors soon realize, descriptions in booksellers’ printed catalogues or online listings don’t always paint a full and perfect picture, and we’ve all experienced both elation and disappointment when the books that we ordered are received and examined closely. Of course, you could ask for further information or photos before you order the book, but then there’s always the chance that the seller might notice something significant that they hadn’t seen before, and you may then be informed that the listed price was a mistake or that the book is no longer available. Though you may not know exactly what you’re getting when you order these volumes, the knowledge and pleasure that you’ll receive when you study them will likely far outpace any regrets, and I hope that you take the chance and the opportunity to seek them out.  

Further Reading

Many books and articles have appeared in recent years about marginalia in printed and manuscript books. A good book to start with is H. J. Jackson’s Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2002). Collectors interested in early printed books should also take a look at bookseller Bernard M. Rosenthal’s influential catalogue, The Rosenthal Collection of Printed Books with Manuscript Annotations: A Catalog of 242 Editions Mostly Before 1600 Annotated by Contemporary or Near-Contemporary Readers (New Haven: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, 1997). There’s also Roger E. Stoddard’s very informative exhibition catalogue, Marks in Books, Illustrated and Explained (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Houghton Library, 1985), though this, unfortunately, is not easy to find on the market.

The history and creation of extra-illustrated books is a fascinating area for study, and I devoted my column in the January/February 2005 issue of Fine Books & Collections to the subject. The classic work on extra-illustrated books is Daniel M. Tredwell’s A Monograph on Privately Illustrated Books: A Plea for Bibliomania (First published: Brooklyn, New York: Fred. Tredwell, 1881; Revised and enlarged edition: Flatbush, Long Island: Privately Printed, 1892), which is freely available online. You can read the 1892 revised and enlarged edition here.

More recently, Erin C. Blake and Stuart Sillars surveyed the subject in Extending the Book: The Art of Extra-Illustration (Washington, DC: Folger Shakespeare Library, 2010), and Lucy Peltz focused on the early period of the vogue for extra-illustration in Facing the Text: Extra-Illustration, Print Culture, and Society in Britain 1769–1840 (San Marino, California: The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, 2017).

Terry Belanger, the founder of Rare Book School, spoke about extra-illustrated books in Lunacy and Pictures in Books: An Extra-Illustrated Lecture which he delivered at Rare Book School (then at Columbia University) on June 14, 1988. You can hear Belanger’s lecture, which is one of several hundred Rare Book School Lectures freely available online, below.

The Rare Book School Lectures span several decades and cover a remarkably wide range of subjects, and the online availability of so many of the lectures is a great gift to anyone interested in books. You can browse and access the lectures here.