There are so many different ways to collect books, and never-ending variety when it comes to shaping a book collection and deciding what you will collect. Some book collectors focus on completion, or collecting all of a particular author or publisher’s printed works. Other collectors are more esoteric, making their own rules for what belongs (and what doesn’t) in the collection. Book collectors have widely disparate sums of money to spend on book collections, and developing a collection certainly does not have to involve spending a substantial amount of money. To be sure, many collectors do spend a lot of money on individual items for their collections, yet there are also many book and ephemera collectors who bring together inexpensive items that, when placed in conversation with one another, have the capacity to produce great meaning.
Book collectors and their collections can be wildly diverse, with some embracing the framework of the literary canon to others eschewing it entirely. Collectors come from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, and from varying parts of the globe. Some collectors seek to amass as many books as possible for their collections in as short a time as they can, while others take years to build out even a small collection of items. Although collectors can be very different from one another, they all have at least one thing in common: a love of the book as object. While some twenty-first century readers have shifted to digital reading formats, book collectors are helping to demonstrate the value of the physical book.
Book collecting has changed in a variety of significant ways since it first came into fashion. In large part, book collecting began as a pastime, a passion, for upper-class white men, which shouldn’t come as a surprise since the people writing and publishing books largely fell into the same identity categories. In the 19th century, when the term “bibliomania” was coined by Thomas Frognall Dibdin in 1842, the United States considered non-white human beings to be property (the Slavery Abolition Act, for the record, had only come less than a decade before Dibdin’s publication in the U.K.), women couldn’t vote, and most Western nations were crafting imperial blueprints that would lead to centuries of grievous inequity across the globe. The literary canon developed during that period influenced much literary education through the 20th and 21st centuries. Some things since then have changed.
No longer is book collecting just a generous pastime for men who, in the 19th-century, seemed to be the only ones “afflicted” with bibliomania. Now that we’ve reached the second decade of the 21st century, more diverse collectors are emerging. Some of the shift is due in part to publishing companies run by women and people of color—and the writers they’re promoting—who are helping to change the definition of “literature” more broadly.
What gets collected and what has value? Those categories are also shifting, slowly but surely. As definitions of literature shift and readers think through the ways in which certain texts and writers have been excluded in the past, more people are recognizing the value in preserving those works. For example, while zines and certain types of related ephemera might not have been viewed as collectable in the past, the DIY and activist movements that produced works like the Black Panther Party Newspaper, the Riot Grrrl zines, and the Harlem Renaissance literary magazine Fire!! are being catalogued in special collections libraries and are appearing in booths at international antiquarian book fairs.
Naturally, as time as pressed on and technology has shifted, the ways in which book collecting actually happens has also changed. The internet has allowed buyers and sellers to engage in ways that wouldn’t have been possible in another time, and information about buying books and collecting is readily available for people who might otherwise have been unsure about where to gain access to such knowledge.
Whether you have just begun a book collection or you’re thinking about develop your own collection, you should get started! Whereas book collectors of the past were assembling collections largely for their own homes, book collecting can now serve both personal and community purposes. Certainly, collecting particular books and ephemera can give each of us a pleasurable pastime and a mission when we’re at home or when we’re traveling. Building a collection can also allow us to bring together objects from various times and places, and to demonstrate the ways in which previously suppressed and oppressed voices can take on new power and meaning in 21st-century collections.
As new technologies seem to threaten the ability to collect and preserve the book as physical object, we’re also heartened to see the ways in which collectors are making use of technology to support their collections. From databases and apps that allow for cataloguing, to webstore features that allow booksellers to reach collectors across the globe, many collectors are embracing new technology and the ways in which it can enhance more traditional ideas of book collector. Moreover, the demographics of book collecting are starting to shift, as new collectors push the canonical definition of the “book collector” and what it means to assemble and to own valuable print material. If you were thinking about starting a collection of books and ephemera, now is the time.