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Penn State University Libraries

Frequently Asked Questions About Rare Books


Special Collections Library
104 Paterno Library
University Park, PA 16802

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Rare Books FAQs

"What is your oldest book?"

Our oldest printed book is a Latin work on ancient history that includes an early history of Germany. It was printed in Venice in 1476:

Siculus Diodorus. Diodori Sicvli historiarvm priscarvm a Poggio in Latinvm tradvcti liber primvs incipit. Impressi Venetiis, per Andrea Iacobi Katharesem Andrea Vendramino Duce fortunatissimo, 1476.

Our copy lacks the final signature containing a chapter on Tacitus, but the chapter has been supplied from another copy and cataloged as an addendum. The final signature is rubricated and illustrated with this drawing.

This work forms part of our collection of incunabula (a Latin word meaning "things in the cradle"), or books produced in the infancy of printing. Specifically, the term refers to books printed before 1501.


"What is your rarest book?"

This is a question that we are often asked, but it’s impossible for us to say which of our books is the rarest. We honestly don’t know! Books that we once thought were extremely rare often turn up in national databases because other contributing libraries are cataloging their copies and making them known, so the answer to this question can be elusive and changing.

This is one of our rarest books: Sir David Lyndsay, The Warkis of the Famous and Worthie Knicht, published in Edinburgh in 1568. It is one of the earliest printed works in the Scots tongue and one of the chief sources for early Scottish literature. There are only two known copies in America, including ours. Our copy is unique in that it is rather elaborately bound by the famous binding firm of Rivière. We reproduce the beautiful leather cover below:

Sir David Lyndsay, The Warkis of the Famous and Worthie Knicht


Another rare book at the Penn State Libraries is a printed Book of Hours (Hore intemerate Virginis Marie secundu[m] vsum Romanum cum pluribus orationibus tam in Gallico [et] in Latino), known in only two copies for this edition, published in Paris in 1505 by Guillaume Anabat. It is printed on vellum and has hand-colored illustrations and decorations. This book can be viewed here in its entirety as part of the Lehigh University  Digital Library of Illuminated Manuscripts.


"What makes a book rare?"

Millions of books have been produced over the past five hundred years, and only a small number of these would be considered "rare" by specialists. Scarcity does not necessarily mean rarity. In theory, a book is considered rare only when the demand for it is greater than the supply.

Factors other than age or scarcity can make a book rare: a physical characteristic such as an important binding, an autograph or an inscription, or illustrations that are the work of a fine artist. Collectible or rare books might include significant editions and early printings of major writers, early reports of travel and discoveries, or early examples of printing in a country or a state. Our Rare Books and Manuscripts, for instance, collects books written by or about Joseph Priestley, books illustrated by Edward Gorey, Italian books printed before 1600, and books printed in Pennsylvania before 1840.

The books in the Rare Books and Manuscripts are not all old or of great monetary value. In fact, age usually has very little to do with value. But our books do have intrinsic importance or research value, and they would be difficult to replace. Many books are housed in the Rare Books and Manuscripts because they form part of a special collection of books devoted to particular topics--English translations from the German, for example, or utopian literature.


"Are my old books rare?"

The following kinds of books--the kind that are found in great numbers in attics or basements--are usually not rare: Bibles, encyclopedias, sermons and books of religious instruction, textbooks, collected editions of authors' works, single volumes of sets, and newspapers and magazines.

Assessing the Value of Books page is intended to assist our patrons in evaluating books. Topics include some frequently asked questions about old books; suggestions on finding book values on the Internet and in print sources; appraisal of materials, including information on tax matters and standards of ethical conduct for librarians; and a list of selected appraisers.


"How can I find out if my book is rare?"

There are many reference books in the University Libraries on the subject of book collecting and the evaluation of books. The Rare Books and Manuscripts's reference collection includes auction records, pricing guides, and bibliographies, and the staff will be happy to assist you in finding resources. When you bring a listing of your books, be sure to include for each book the author's name, the exact title as it appears on the title page, the name of the publisher, and the place and date of publication. The description should also note the condition of the book and the presence or absence of a dust jacket.


"How can I keep my books in good condition?"

A cool, dry environment is best for books because they are so sensitive to temperature and moisture. In most households, this means that storing books in the basement or in the attic is not advisable. In general, you should store your books in the part of the house where you live, out of direct sunlight. Keep your books free of dust (dust makes books vulnerable to mildew), and never repair torn pages with self-adhesive tape.

The Rare Books and Manuscripts staff can give general advice on basic preservation and treatment of books, manuscripts, and photographs. We also maintain lists of conservators and suppliers of archival products. For a copy of our Frequently Asked Preservation Questions, call us at (814) 865-1793 or e-mail us at For more information on the care of books, write to the Northeast Document Conservation Center, 100 Brickstone Square, Andover, MA 01810. The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works website contains a wealth of conservation information.


"Are there special rules or suggestions for handling rare materials?"

In the Rare Books and Manuscripts we ask that our readers handle rare materials with care and that they follow a few rules of preservation. Most of these rules are common-sense practices that can also apply to the use of your own books at home:

  • Use only pencils to take notes; accidents with pens can make permanent stains.
  • Don't fold or otherwise disturb the physical state of the materials.
  • Do not apply pressure to the spine or fold back pages of books. Keep elbows and heavy objects off the books and manuscripts.
  • Do not stack open books on top of each other, prop them in precarious positions that might damage fragile bindings, or write notes with paper resting on top of materials.
  • Try not to touch or handle pages more than necessary; acids and oils in your skin can damage paper and photographs. Cotton gloves are available for examining especially vulnerable items.
  • Use weights and book props for books that do not open fully.
  • In Rare Books and Manuscripts, photocopying is done by staff members on a special preservation photocopier; patrons may not personally copy materials. Photocopying is permitted only if items are unlikely to be harmed by the copying process.