One of the challenges of becoming a rare and antique book collector is deciding what to focus on. From genre, topic, age, condition, cultural appeal, binding, printing press, and paper stock, there is just way too much "to cover." Try being a generalist, and I assure that you will overpay for countless books (sentiment aside).
Case in point: I was once convinced that I was going to be a collector of fine bindings. I was far more interested in a book's shelf appeal than the contents therein. One of my first fine binding purchases was a five volume set of "Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches: With Elucidations" (1870) by Thomas Carlyle. I LOVED this set when I saw it. Still do. The quality of materials used and craftsmanship needed to assemble are truly something to behold.
But, as I collected fine bindings, I began to draw more interest in learning about the history of books - types of bindings, languages used (and why), the reputation of various printing houses, and paper composition, just to name a few points.
Attending my very first large scale antiquarian book fair tipped the scale. It was one of the most overwhelming experiences of my life. There were just way too many books! To survive my glutinous appetite, I decided to focus on topic areas that interested me. Binding types no longer mattered. Fine bindings, I concluded, moreover, would probably bankrupt me anyway.
Today, I am far better off. I now (somewhat) specialize in early Americana; European history; the clash of theology and its impacts on the formation and fall of the Roman Empire: medieval warfare; and, my favorite, political philosophy.
While I will always have something learn about the history of the book, my focus areas better enable me to understand the cultural significance of an offering. Condition and edition also deeply matter.
Safe to say I am now armed when I surf online auction houses, buy from dealers (trusted or otherwise), and attend fairs and estate sales . . . and yes, I paid way too much for that Cromwell set. Let's not you be the next.
When building a rare or antique book collection, don't forget about, well, antiquing! Many shops are filled with antiquarian books of all shapes, sizes and condition. They are usually in pretty rough shape, and anything of passing interest usually suffers from overvaluation. In the end, antiquing may not be a great use if your time unless you generally enjoy browsing.
STORING and CARE
At a recent book fair, I was asked several times how to best care for centuries old rare and antique books. My answer: No need to overthink it. Unless a book, manuscript, or document is both truly rare (perhaps, one of a kind) **AND** has significant importance (cultural or otherwise), one only has three things to protect against: (1) persistently direct light - especially sunlight; (2) insects; and (3) humidity. Storing your treasures in a cool, dry place, while protecting against insects in an archival box should cover about 98% of any concern.
Washing your hands before handling is a good best practice as well. Protecting books and documents from natural oils will help in the long run, especially if you have a book or document printed on poorly made paper. White gloves, while sound for the rarest of historical artifacts, aren't really necessary. Plus, gloves prevent the full use of the finger dexterity needed to handle fragility. Safe handling is also important. Glove use will likely increase the chance of inadvertent paper tearing and creasing.
At the end of the day, unless a book, manuscript or document is truly irreplaceable, enjoy it! Let's not overthink this topic. Feel free to proudly display and share your treasures. Just do so free from direct sunlight (and, I'll add away from your kitchen and other smoky environments). If you want to store it, find closet space, placing your book, perhaps, inside an archival box. Garages and attics are not a good ides.