A Basic Guide to Rare Book Research

In my job as the manager of the Library at Museums Victoria (Australia), I am frequently required to conduct rare book research for programs, displays, online projects, or to establish the provenance of a book. I remember being a little daunted by this task at first, not knowing quite what to cover or what the relevant references were in this field. I have put together this quick guide as a reference for newcomers, using digitised books in BHL to demonstrate how to “read” a book for rare book research. I’ve also included some useful links and further reading if you’d like to delve deeper.

Having conducted numerous talks and tours on rare books in my career, I am now familiar with the questions people ask and prepare by trying to cover as much as possible of the following:

  • Bibliographical information: publication date and the dates of any parts if applicable, edition statement, number of volumes, parts and plates
  • Production details: method of printing and illustrating, method of colouring
  • Print run (edition)
  • Remaining (extant) copies
  • Biographical information of authors/illustrators/contributors
  • Provenance
  • Significance

Here are my top tips for finding that information.

1. Look at the book!

Much information can be gleaned from the item itself. The title page is normally the go-to for bibliographical details and may also provide information about illustrations. For instance, title pages frequently advertise methods of printing and colouring plates.

1. t.p. Mathews small.jpg

Image: This title page informs us that the book contains hand-coloured and monochrome plates. Source: Mathews, Gregory. The birds of Norfolk & Lord Howe Islands and the Australasian South Polar quadrant. 1928. Contributed in BHL from Museums Victoria.

The illustrations themselves often bear further information, such as the names of contributors or the method of printing.

2. Plate Gould small.jpg

Plate 33. Gould, John. Birds of Australia. Volume 1 (1848). Contributed in BHL from Smithsonian Libraries.

You may need to do some detective work to decipher abbreviations. In the example above “J. Gould & H. C. Richter” appears on the left with the abbreviation del et lith and “Hullmandel & Walton” appears on the right with the abbreviation Imp. There are a number of references that you can consult to illuminate these terms (see further reading). Princeton University Library’s post on Printmaker’s abbreviations provides the following information:

  • del = drawn by
  • lith = lithographed by
  • imp = printed by

Therefore, this illustration indicates that it was transferred to (drawn on) the lithographic stone by J. Gould and H. C. Richter and printed by the firm Hullmandel & Walton.

The preface and introduction may also contain acknowledgements of contributors and details on production methods.

3. Preface Gould crop.jpg

Preface. Gould, John. Birds of Australia. Volume 1 (1848). Contributed in BHL from Smithsonian Libraries.

For instance, John Gould’s preface to Birds of Australia provides greater detail than the acknowledgements on individual plates. He laments the loss of his wife Elizabeth part-way through the production of the work, and we learn that she drew the preliminary sketches that Richter used to develop the final prints. Gould also mentions that the illustrations were hand-coloured by a Mr. Bayfield.

Rare books may also contain traces of their previous owners, or provenance. Provenance information is commonly found in the first few pages of a book, such as the inside front cover, flyleaves or title page. Hints as to previous owners can include inscriptions, bookplates or library stamps (more on stamps in my library here).

4. Inscription Lyell small.jpg

Image: This inscription on the title page indicates that this book belonged to author George Lyell. Source: Waterhouse, G. A & Lyell, G.. Butterflies of Australia. 1914. Contributed in BHL from Museums Victoria.

5. Bookplate Ducane Godman small.jpg

Image: Bookplate of naturalist Frederick Ducane Godman, co-author of Biologia Centrali-Americana with Osbert Salvin. Source: Salvin, Osbert. [Collected articles from The Ibis on the ornithology of Central America]. 1859-1864. Contributed in BHL from Museums Victoria.

6. Library stamps Antarctica crop.jpg

Image: These library stamps demonstrate the transfer of this item between institutions. The Museums Victoria Library has received two significant donations of material from the Parliamentary Library of Victoria in its history. Source: Elisha Kent Kane. Arctic explorations : the second Grinnell Expedition in search of Sir John Franklin, 1853, ’54, ’55. Volume 1. 1856. Contributed in BHL from Museums Victoria.

Institutional or library markings may direct you to relevant archival materials.

7. Archival References JJ Wild crop.jpg

Image: Pencil notes in the top right-hand corner of this page indicate that this book was for sale by D. A. Horn Antiquarian Books for $50. The top left-hand numbers are an acquisition number that would allow us to trace the purchase in our archives. Source: Wild, John James. At anchor : a narrative of experiences afloat and ashore during the voyage of H.M.S. Challenger, from 1872 to 1876. 1878. Contributed in BHL from Museums Victoria.

Be particularly attentive to any dates as these should help narrow the date range for further archival research.

2. Consult catalogue records

If you are working with a library book, the catalogue record will be an indispensable resource for bibliographic details, and may contain additional contributor, production or provenance information. Comparing your local catalogue record to other library records will allow you to compare basic details of your copy with others to verify the completeness of your item. Trove and Worldcat are useful for locating library catalogue records and identifying how many copies remain in public collections in Australia or worldwide. It is often difficult to establish the number of extant copies with any certainty unless a census has been conducted (such as this one of the Aurora Australis.)

Auction catalogue records are useful as they normally provide a physical description, brief biography of the author, list any known contributors, and highlight points of significance. The price estimate can be helpful too! Some auction houses make their catalogue records freely available online, so you will be able to find them through an internet search. Otherwise, try consulting your public or institutional library to see if they can help you locate relevant resources.

3. Locate digitised versions

Sometimes it can be useful to consult a digitised version of the book, such as may be found in online repositories like the Biodiversity Heritage Library. This level of detailed research may be needed if you suspect the copy is incomplete, or to compare variations in hand-colouring or binding.

9. Seba Smithsonian.JPG

Image: By comparing our copy of Albertus Seba’s Thesaurus with a Smithsonian copy, I was able to establish that our copy is bound differently; two volumes of plates and two volumes of text, rather than the usual four volumes with plates interleaved throughout. Source: Seba, Albertus. Locupletissimi rerum naturalium thesauri accurata descriptio. Volume 1. 1734-1765. Contributed in BHL from Smithsonian Libraries.

4. Consult secondary references

Verify the information you have compiled by consulting relevant secondary sources. Rare books are described using specific terminology that you may not be familiar with, so it can be helpful to utilise a glossary such as this one from the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers.

Become familiar with standard references in your subject area and region. For instance, in Australia biographical information is readily accessible through the Australian Dictionary of Biography. The Bibliography of Australia by John Alexander Ferguson provides a list of Australian publications, and similar titles document publications in other regions.

Subject-specific bibliographies may also be of use. For instance, in my library I have consulted Antarctica, 1772-1922 : freestanding publications through 1999, Natural science books in English, 1600-1900 and Bibliography of Australian entomology, 1775-1930 : with bibliographical notes on authors and collectors when undertaking rare book research. These types of references can help outline significance and sometimes provide additional information on contributors, editions, or production methods.

If the book or author you are researching is well-known, there will be an array of books, journal articles and websites that provide biographical and contributor information, methods of production, and significance. For instance, recent secondary material on John Gould tends to emphasise the important role of his wife Elizabeth in more detail than is readily apparent from acknowledgements on the works themselves. Secondary sources also suggest that while John Gould certainly had input into the illustrations that adorn his publications, he would not have been the one to transfer the drawing to the lithographic stone.

However, if the book or author is more obscure, this can present a greater challenge. This is a good opportunity to utilise the reference services offered by your local or institutional library!

5. Remember the wider context

In my role as a librarian, I undertake rare book research on items in our collection as required, and therefore my research tends to be object-oriented. While this guide aims to assist this type of research, it is important to be aware of the broader social and historical context that a book was produced in and to consider how this might affect your interpretation (a much bigger topic than I can cover here!).

This guide outlines a basic approach to rare book research and is based on my professional experience. It is most applicable to rare printed materials such as you will find in BHL. If a more detailed approach appeals, the study of bibliography offers techniques for analysing and describing rare books at a more technical level.

Further Reading

Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, ABAA Glossary. Retrieved from https://www.abaa.org/glossary

Carter, John (1980) ABC for book collectors, 6th ed., London & New York, Granada.

Gascoigne, Bamber (2004) How to identify prints : a complete guide to manual and mechanical processes from woodcut to inkjet, London, Thames & Hudson.

International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, ILAB Glossary. Retrieved from https://ilab.org/glossary

Melby, Julie (2009) Printmaker’s abbreviations, Princeton University Library Blog, Retrieved from https://www.princeton.edu/~graphicarts/2009/02/printmakers_abbreviations.html

Pearson, David (2019) Provenance research in book history : a handbook, 2nd ed. London & New Castle, Delaware, Bodleian Library & Oak Knoll.

Russell, Roslyn and Winkworth, Kylie (2009) Significance 2.0 : a guide to assessing the significance of collections, Rundle Mall, South Australia, Collections Council of Australia, https://www.arts.gov.au/what-we-do/museums-libraries-and-galleries/significance-20

Webster, Hayley (2019) Provenance and Library Stamps at Museums Victoria and on BHL, BHL blog, Retrieved from https://blog.biodiversitylibrary.org/2019/10/provenance-and-library-stamps.html#more-23080

Photo of a person with red hair showing off a book in a storage room.
Written by

Hayley Webster is the manager of the library at Museums Victoria, where she oversees a rare book collection specialising in Natural History. She has worked on the BHL project since 2012, selecting material for digitisation.