Even if you're a novice collector of rare books, you've undoubtedly heard about the importance of identifying first editions. Generally first editions were printed in smaller numbers, making them more scarce. Furthermore, there's a certain allure to having the "very first" of something. Because first edition identification is critical to building a rare book collection, it's important to invest in at least a few useful resources.
Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions
Compiled by Bill McBride, Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions is indispensable when you're browsing at book fairs, garage sales, or antique stores. It lists the methods that English-language publishers have used to identify first editions, both hardbound and paperbound, past and present. As there are myriad ways to indicate a book's edition, and each publisher's method has its own nuances, you'll often see even the most seasoned book dealers consulting the Pocket Guide on occasion.
First Editions: A Guide to Identification
Edited by Edward N Zempel and Linda A Verkler, the fourth edition of First Editions: A Guide to Identification is much more than a handy pocket guide. It's a comprehensive guide to the first edition identification statements of selected North American, British Commonwealth, and Irish publishers. First Editions includes only information obtained directly from the publishers themselves, "from the horse's mouth" as it were. It holds all the statements from the first, second, and third editions of HS Boutell's First Editions of To-day and How to Tell Them (1928, 1937, and 1949) along with those from A First Edition? (1977) and previous editions of First Editions: A Guide to Identification (1984, 1989, and 1995).
Note that these first edition guides primarily focus on books published in the twentieth century and later. They also don't offer guidance on differentiating, for instance, between the first state and later states of a book--both of which may still be considered first editions. And some desirable editions of books will be published by small presses--which aren't included in standard resources. That's why it's critical to obtain a bibliography for your area of focus. For instance, collectors of Charles van Sandwyk rely on the Interim Bibliography published by Heavenly Monkey in 2000. Nowhere else will you find information about identifying van Sandwyk's first editions, and this bibliography is a collector's item unto itself.
Bibliographies can also address broader subjects. Jacob Blanck's Bibliography of American Literature represents a definitive resource, and you'll frequently find references to "BAL" in book dealers' descriptions. It's a truly exhaustive work, published in multiple volumes by Oak Knoll Press. Some collectors obtain only the volumes that contain information on the authors that interest them, while others get the entire set.
You'll also find much more specialized bibliographies, such as Bibliotheca Mechanica by Verne L Roberts and Ivy Trent, considered the authoritative bibliography on early engineering and mechanics. A Matter of Taste, a comprehensive bibliography of the international collection of books on food and drink housed at the Lilly Library at Indiana University. It includes books on gastronomy, wine making, and a number of other topics relevant to collectors of antiquarian cookery books. Just about every area of specialization has its own bibliography.
A New Generation of Collectors' Resources
The ubiquity of the internet has substantially changed the world of rare book collecting. There's a wealth of information available to collectors on the internet, including our own library of downloadable guides. In our resource library, you'll find guides on rare book care and restoration, along with collector's checklists for Newbery- and Caldecott-winning books, guides for collecting first editions from modern publishers, and much more!