What Defines a Rare Book?
When people talk about rare books, the first thing that comes to mind is old books. And that is correct: Many books held in Special Collections departments are old books, often hundreds of years old.
But old books are not the only books we consider "rare books". A book may be rare because it is the first book written by an author, or the first time an innovative idea was published.
A rare book may be autographed by the author or inscribed by a friend. A famous or important person could have made notes in the rare book that document thoughts in development.
Some books are located in Special Collections because they are part of a collection housed in Special Collections. For example, in the University Archives, USC Libraries collects everything about USC's history, including contemporary events and faculty publications. Thus, we have many contemporary books in Special Collections, because these were published by USC faculty and are part of the University Archives.
Lastly, a book can be considered rare because it was published in a limited number of copies. At USC, we have a fantastic collection of “artists' books” which artists have created to express their ideas in the form of a book, though not all artists’ books look like a book. “Fine press” books are printed by hand using a printing press, and are produced in small quantities. Few copies can be found of artists’ and fine press books, outside of Special Collections.
Illuminated Medieval Manuscripts at USC
Jeremy M. Norman: Traditions & Culture of Collecting. What is a Rare Book? The Six Criteria of Rarity in Antiquarian Books
Your Old Books (RMBS, 2011)
Image Header: Rare Books in USC's Feuchtwanger Memorial Library. Photo: Paula Goldman for USC Libraries.