The Joys of Collecting Rare Science Books

Some scientists are born collectors, others achieve their ambitions and create great collections, and some have great collections thrust on them. It all depends on what they collect. There is a great variety of what scientists can collect—for example, stars for a new catalog, insects or plants, exotic chemicals, reprints, interesting medical cases, statistics or old scientific books. I have collected old scientific books for most of my life, so I shall write about the why, how and what of

By | May 4, 1987

Some scientists are born collectors, others achieve their ambitions and create great collections, and some have great collections thrust on them. It all depends on what they collect. There is a great variety of what scientists can collect—for example, stars for a new catalog, insects or plants, exotic chemicals, reprints, interesting medical cases, statistics or old scientific books. I have collected old scientific books for most of my life, so I shall write about the why, how and what of collecting these, how to look after a collection, and how to dispose of it.

De Beaumarchais compared the writing of a book with the creation of a child: "Concus avec volupté, mènes a terme avec fatigue, enfants avec douleur" ("Voluptuously conceived, wearily brought to term, and painfully delivered"). Anyone who has spent nine months or more to produce a book will readily agree that such a work is an extremely personal effort, represents much labor and is, at least in its author's opinion, a unique achievement. To read an old scientific book in its original edition, as the author intended it to he seen, is probably the best reason for collecting books.

There are other good reasons, such as the aesthetic pleasures of the fine ancient typeface on handlaid paper, the old engravings on foldout pages, the marbled end-papers and the finely tooled and gilded spines. Another reason to collect is for scholarship, and today it is possible to have at least reprinted copies of the great classics as excellent facsimiles. They, in turn, have often become rare and expensive as many of us have reached at least some affluence and thus have been able to collect all the works of our favorite author or complete another section of the library—if possible, of course, as first editions.

During the last few decades another reason for collecting antique scientific books has become apparent: investment. Take as an example Charles Darwin's great classic On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. The first edition in 1859 consisted of 1,250 copies and cost $3. One hundred years later it fetched $200 and today's value is $6,500. Much the same would be true for Robert Boyle's Sceptical Chymist of 1661 or for Euclid's Elementa Geometriae, the oldest printed mathematical book (Venice, 1482). As a guide to which books are the greatest, I recommend John Carter and Percy H. Muir's Printing and the Mind of Man (Cassell and Coy, London, 1967) which lists them all, up to the age of atomic physics. As old scientific books come less and less frequently onto the open market, their cost is bound to increase further and attract more investors.

They have become a status symbol. Will this trend ever change? Perhaps temporarily, but not when seen over the decades and centuries, as the example of Darwin proves.

How to Collect

To inherit a collection is the easiest way to acquire rare books, and thus the great collections of scientific books have been built up at the national libraries, such as the Library of Congress, and at the learned scientific societies and the universities. For the ordinary scientific book collector, collecting will begin by going to bookshops and by browsing through the shelves. (Take a small torch: dark corners may contain the real treasures.) Many of the better bookshops send out catalogs, and once you are known as a collector, friends and colleagues will point out interesting items.

Then there are the great scientific book auctions, at least in London; catalogs of these are sent out, and of course one can bid by telephone or in writing. If one travels and comes to an unknown town, one should always consult the local librarian, who is bound to know the right bookshops in the town and neighborhood.

Build on what you have already, and start with your own special field of interest. Your university textbooks may have become collector's items and the natural extension would be to acquire the classical first editions in your field. Your expert knowledge will guide you in what is important and relevant to progress in your field. The greatest books to collect are of course the 424 listed by Carter and Muir in Printing and the Mind of Man, many of which are scientific books.

Collections of scientific books can be built up along many lines. One can form a library according to the period of publication, for example chemistry books of the late 18th century documenting the end of the phlogiston period and the beginning of modern combustion with the discovery of oxygen. Collecting according to geographic regions might appeal to a person in the new and developing countries. Equally collectible and now already very expensive are early American and Australian scientific books. One might collect the biographies of famous scientists in general, or only of famous authors in one's own discipline. One could collect the books of a special historical event, like the introduction of the metric system or the exploration of the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Early science fiction is now much collected. There is really no end of themes: books can be collected according to publishers, printers and even by bindings of famous craftsmen.

Bear in mind the everlasting continuity of all science. New and important subjects are constantly emerging and are most valuable to collect, as one can begin at the beginning. Radioactivity and atomic physics have already become classical subjects, space exploration is on the way, and underwater research books are getting rare, but microelectronics, superconductivity, information science, molecular biology and AIDS are still frontline subjects. Naturally, most scientists will form a collection of their own writings, and if other members of your family are also scientists, a valuable family collection could be built up. And don't forget reprints; copies might even be available from famous authors. Photocopies are not collectibles; they are mere work tools.

Tips for Proper Care

The owner of a library is the trustee of the author and has the responsibility to pass on the book to posterity in its best possible state of preservation. Ask any librarian! Copies without bindings should be rebound, preferably in the style of the period, new leather backs should be made, and for exceedingly precious books, a box should be constructed by a competent craftsman. None of this is cheap nowadays, but if you have time to spare, you can always learn bookbinding yourself. Leather-bound books should be washed after purchase with a good saddle soap and then treated with the so-called British Museum Leather Dressing. It is made up from: anhydrous lanolin 200 g, cedarwood oil 30 ml, beeswax 15 g and hexane as solvent 330 ml. Proprietary bookcloth cleaner solutions are also now available containing ammonium hydroxide and petroleum distifiates. Finally, a collector might like to make an index of his possessions, on file cards or in the memory of a personal computer. Only a few private collections will ever become famous enough to have their contents printed and published. Such catalogs of famous scientific collections are of course collectibles in themselves.

By all means take out an insurance policy for your collection, if you can afford the premium. The premium will, of course, vary according to location and other factors; the classic books of science (see table) will double in value every seven years. The best appraisal can only be given by an antiquarian bookseller specializing in science.

As we are all mortal, we have one day to consider the continuity of our collection. The ideal solution, of course, is to leave it to our children, if they are interested and willing to collect. Another excellent solution would be to leave the collection to one of the national libraries, but these should be asked first if they are willing to accept; they are bound to have copies of all that any ordinary collector can assemble. Next in order would be one's university library or one's scientific society's library, and one should always instruct one's lawyer to have an assurance of acceptability; also seek the advice of a tax consultant to determine the liabilities. Not recommended are the university departmental libraries, as one head of department might gladly accept, but his successor decide to sell.

The final solution will always be to offer the collection by public auction to the next generation of collectors. As such redistribution by auction becomes less common and as valuable scientific books find their ultimate resting places more and more often in permanent public collections, they will get rarer and rarer, and hence more expensive. If you want to have a collection of antique scientific books, then start today, not tomorrow.

Michaelis is editor of Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Spectrum House, Hillview Gardens, London NW4 2JQ, UK.

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