Michigan State University

Collection Development Policy Statement: Rare Books

Factors Influencing Collection Policy

A. Anticipated future trends

There are two certainties in rare book collecting: prices will go up and fewer copies will be available. Many important books—books that would be outstanding teaching and outreach tools—are now prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthiest collectors. Other important books are unavailable altogether, every extant copy having already found an institutional home. For these reasons, it is important to recognize those books that will be of lasting value for our users and to acquire them while they are still available at affordable prices. For better or worse, the availability of rare books depends largely on the whim of the market and cannot be anticipated as we anticipate database and journal subscriptions. It is important to remain flexible to take advantage of opportunities as they arise.

While traditional rare books and manuscripts have long demanded premium prices, the market has responded to the growing research value of the ephemeral, the obscure, and the unique. It’s not uncommon, for example, to see an important zine or community cookbook selling for hundreds of dollars. Culinary manuscripts frequently sell for thousands. The personal papers of prominent figures routinely command six- and even seven-figure prices. As research value increases, market value often increases, too. Material that might have been donated (or ignored) yesterday could cost us dearly tomorrow. Our budget, collecting strategies, and collecting priorities must be ready to adapt to a constantly changing market.

As the internet continues to change the face of this market, we can anticipate a much broader spectrum of purchasing opportunities and platforms. More and more individuals are finding ways to bypass the intermediary and to sell directly to the end consumer—through eBay and Amazon, for example—and we should expect to find available a growing amount of valuable material spread across a growing number of platforms. The library that is prepared to adjust its purchasing methods to new platforms is poised to take the greatest advantage of these opportunities. Libraries that are not prepared will find themselves at a disadvantage in the pursuit of important material.

This trend does not obviate the importance of maintaining relationships with dealers who understand our collecting priorities. A single librarian simply cannot stay apprised of every book as it becomes available. Much like an approval plan for new books, an understanding dealer who has eyes on the market and connections throughout the trade can offer the librarian material that otherwise might have been missed. This benefits the collection and saves the librarian precious time. These relationships will be critical collection development tools as competition for scarce material intensifies.

Of course, donations and endowments will continue to play a vital role in the development of the Rare Book Collection. As rare material grows more expensive, it’s as important as ever to establish and maintain relationships with private collectors who specialize in fields that align with our own collecting priorities—or who could offer exciting new directions. The growth of existing endowments and the establishment of new ones, many of which are restricted to benefit specific subject areas, will likewise influence the development of targeted collecting areas.

B. Relationships with other sources

Books from the circulating collection may be transferred into the Rare Book Collection. This happens for any number of reasons, but transfers are typically driven by the responsibility to safeguard certain books from loss. Age, rarity, and monetary value frequently come into play.

C. Relationships to resources treated in other policy statements

Given the broad subject coverage of the Rare Book Collection, it could potentially have a relationship with any other policy statement. Books deemed to be at risk in the circulating collection, even though purchased by other librarians, are sometimes added to the Rare Book Collection. Medieval and Renaissance/Early Modern Studies, for example, collects medieval manuscript facsimiles in a limited fashion, which are frequently housed in the Rare Book Collection.