Contemporary accounts mention personal manuscript collections in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome; because manuscript media—scrolls and papyri—were scarce and expensive (and illiteracy general), collecting was confined to religious leaders and heads of state. During the Middle Ages monastic institutions were the main accumulators of valuable manuscripts.
Book collecting proper began after the invention of movable type (c.1437) and the proliferation of inexpensive books. The aim of early collectors, such as Willibald Pirkheimer (1470-1530) and Jean Grolier de Servières, was to assemble personal working libraries. Many early collections became the cornerstones of public libraries. The Bodleian Library at Oxford and the Harleian Library of the British Museum were founded respectively on the private collections of Sir Thomas Bodley and Robert Harley, 1st earl of Oxford. By the end of the 17th cent., book auctioning was common throughout Europe.
In the 18th cent. collectors shifted their focus from building up libraries to seeking original editions, including incunabula, of earlier works. At first criteria were more visual than literary: early printing, fancy binding, and colorful illumination. Richard Heber (1773-1833), whose collection of first editions of literature and history filled several houses, was one of the first collectors to consider contextual factors primary.
During the 19th cent. first editions of native contemporary literature began to attract book collectors. The two most notable collectors of the second half of the century were Henry Huth (1815-78), an Englishman, and Robert Hoe, the first important American collector. In 1884 Hoe became the first president of the newly founded Grolier Club, a New York-based society dedicated to the appreciation of fine book production. The three greatest American book collectors were Henry Clay Folger, John Pierpont Morgan (see under Morgan family), and Henry E. Huntington. During the 20th cent. book collecting on the massive scale practiced by Huntington has declined. Institutional libraries now vie with private collectors for rare books dispersed by auction and through antiquarian bookshops.
The three traditional approaches to collecting first editions are the author collection, the subject collection, and the cabinet collection. This last is a collection of deliberately small size (originally a single bookcase) designed to represent the epitome of one bibliophilic category, such as 15th-century French illumination. The most valuable first editions are of literary classics and early or obscure works of famous authors. The desirability of the first edition is based not only on speculative but also on historical considerations; a first edition is one step from a manuscript. Book collectors use points, such as broken type and text excisions, to distinguish between different issues of first editions.
Modern collectors who cannot afford first editions—Poe's Tamerlane (Boston, 1827) generated $165,000 at an auction in 1990—collect in peripheral fields. Such fields include Americana; books illustrated by famous artists; early books on natural history (especially those with colored plates); books printed by such noted private presses as the Kelmscott Press, the Cuala Press, and the Nonesuch Press; early books recounting travel and exploration; ancient manuscripts; and letters. Some books in these fields, sold at auction houses such as Christie's and Sotheby's, bring substantial prices. For example, John James Audubon's The Birds of America was sold at Christie's in New York for $4.07 million dollars in 1992, a record price for both an illustrated book and a printed piece of Americana.
Information on the existence, location, and prices of collector's items can be found in author bibliographies, dealer and auction catalogs, and book-collecting periodicals such as The Colophon (1930-50), The Book Collecting World, and the Antiquarian Bookman. American Book Prices Current (published annually since 1895) lists titles and prices of books sold at important auctions in the United States, Britain, and Canada.
See J. T. and D. A. Randall, A Primer of Book Collecting (rev. ed. 1966); J. Carter, Books and Book Collecting (1957), and Taste and Technique in Book Collecting (1948, repr. 1970).