How To Build A Book Collection: Your Starting Guide

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Lucas Maxwell has been working with youth in libraries for over fifteen years. Originally from Nova Scotia, Canada, he’s been a high school librarian in London, UK for over a decade. In 2017 he won the UK’s School Librarian of the Year award and in 2022 he was named the UK Literacy Association’s Reading For Pleasure Teacher Champion. He loves Dungeons & Dragons and is the author of Let’s Roll: A Guide for Setting up Tabletop Roleplaying Games in Your School or Public Library. You can follow him on Twitter and on his blog.

Bibliophilioa means a “love of books,” and what better way to demonstrate your love than to learn how to build a book collection? To get started, we have a whole article on the philosophy of book collecting to mull over.

You don’t need to be wealthy to collect books, and there is no set number of books that denotes a “collection.” You also do not have to be an avid reader, although, in my opinion, it helps. Having a book collection is an art form in many ways; it is a little window into your fears, likes, and dreams. We should always have immediate access to books that are important to us. That is my main advice when it comes to building a book collection: what are the books that you’d take with you if you were leaving for somewhere on very short notice?

There are hundreds of reasons why someone would collect books. For me, it’s a comfort thing: I love to see the books, pull them off the shelves, and remind myself of where and who I was when I read them.

For the beginning book collector, I’m going to guide you through the different ways to collect books, how to collect on a budget, and more.

How to Build a Book Collection: Where to Start

If you’re serious about starting a book collection, you need to ask yourself what kinds of books you want to put on your shelves. For me, they are books that help me remember my childhood, and I have branched off from there. Titles like The Hobbit were some of the first books I really connected with; therefore, I started to collect fantasy books. As I got older, I got into sci-fi as well. If I look over my bookshelves, I can see how my tastes and personality have changed over the years.

My advice is to narrow down what you want as much as possible. Just saying “I’m going to collect science fiction” isn’t enough because there’s simply too much out there. Seek out a time period that interests you or a sub-genre that you find particularly fascinating. Then, grow it out from there or stop it at a certain spot and focus on a different genre or time period.

It’s also worth thinking about the kind of editions you’d like to collect. Are you trying to complete a set? Is there a certain publisher you like, and you’re hoping to collect the classics they’ve published? Are you looking for leather-bound books or Folio Society editions? Consider both the titles and the editions you’re seeking out.

The bottom line is, start with the kinds of books you love, start simple, and don’t over-complicate things.

How To Find Rare Books

This can be a challenge due to scarcity and cost, but there are a few steps you can take to find rare and vintage books.

First, visit an antiquarian bookshop if you have one in your area. If not, you can use sites like BookFinder, which can offer a guide on what a book is worth.

Another great place to look is Biblio, which specializes in out-of-print books and can connect you to over 5,500 bookstores, says book collector Marye Audet.

Subbiah Yadlam, an expert on rare books, recommends starting with the Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association. Yadlam suggests reading up on their articles. They occasionally even hold seminars and talks.

You might be on the hunt for that elusive first-edition book. It’s not an easy matter, as the folks over at AbeBooks explain. This is because different publishers use different ways to publish and imprint their books, so it can be a confusing mess. Some publishers do not put any first-edition notes on their pages, especially if they were printed before 1900.

How do you navigate all of this, you ask? If you’re lucky, the publisher will have written “first edition” or “first printing” on the copyright page. Unfortunately, this isn’t always foolproof; some books marked this way aren’t true first editions, but it gives you a good place to start.

AbeBooks also identifies another style called the number line. If you see a line of numbers on the copyright page and you see a “1”, then it could be a first edition and first printing. This method has been in use since the Second World War. If you find that the date printed on the copyright page matches the date on the title page, you probably have a first edition.

Avoid simply going on eBay and buying the first thing you see, as you never know what you are going to get. Instead, speak to the experts first to be guided down the path of book collecting.

As mentioned earlier, most rare book experts say to narrow your vision to a fine point. What are the books you want to collect? What are the books you love the most? Start there.

Yes, book collecting can become expensive, but I’m going to highlight below some ways to collect books on a budget.

How To Collect Books On a Budget

Visit Charity Shops

We’ve written before about the best places to find discount books, and I can’t stress enough how important charity shops are in this regard. You never know what you are going to find in a charity shop. Here in the UK, ones like Oxfam often have shops that are solely dedicated to selling books. They are, in my opinion, pretty amazing. As a school librarian, I’m always trying to build a collection on a budget, and if you are creating your own home collection, charity shops are the place to be. You will find a whole new world of books there and will be amazed at the ones that other people are giving away.

Visit Your Public Library

I worked in the public library before becoming a school librarian, and we held a ton of $1 book sales. Check out your local public library and ask if they have an area where they are selling books. You’d be getting a great deal, and what’s better than giving money to your local library, which is probably cash-strapped because we live in a society that doesn’t really value literacy? Nothing!

Become a Book Reviewer

This one is trickier and takes a lot more time, patience, and effort, but in my experience, it has worked out pretty well. I started writing a book review blog back in 2015 when I was laid up because of surgery. In my head, I was simply trying to keep track of all the books I’ve read. When I shared my reviews on social media, eventually, publishers began to contact me, asking if I’d write a review of a book in exchange for a copy. This was amazing, of course, and I really love doing this eight years later. Again, this one takes a lot of time, and you have to review a lot of books to get to that point, but if you’re a book collector, I hope you are also a book reader, therefore putting up your thoughts on the book should be a natural step in the process.

Speaking of social media, following hashtags like #BookGiveaway or #Giveaway will link you to scores of chances to win free books and often full sets of books. I really recommend taking part in those and, if you’re able, running a few of your own. It can help build a following and result in more opportunities.

How to Organise Your Books

Before you even start organising your books, I advise doing a little book weeding. But wait, isn’t weeding out books antithetical to this entire post? No: a good book collection is a well-weeded book collection. You will fill your shelves with the books you love rather than the books you have just because you feel you need them.

I’ll start with how I organise my own bookshelves. Because I’m a librarian, I go the old-fashioned way: alphabetical by author’s last name. However, there are many ways to organise your bookshelves!

One option is to organise by the colour of the book. This is a great way to make a colourful, creative bookshelf that will grab the attention of anyone who enters the room. This takes a lot of time and effort and will not make finding a book easy to do unless you remember your books by spine colour, but everyone’s tastes are different, and this method may be the best for some.

Another strategy is to group your TBR pile together. I really like this one: putting books front and center that you haven’t read yet will be a nice reminder to get reading, but it will also keep your collection moving, which can be a nice change.

Organising by subject, title, or size are also all options. Again, it should be about your preferences and what you love.

The same goes for book collecting in general: it needs to have your love and dreams brought to it in order for the collection to stand out. I hope you’re able to start the book collection of your dreams!


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