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What is “Rare”?

by Sara Trotta, Librarian

At a specialty library like the Congregational Library, where most of the books in our collection are not the sort of thing you’d find at your local public library, how do we decide what qualifies as rare? The CLA has a circulating collection, a non-circulating collection, and a “Rare Books” collection. “Rare Books” tend to be our most valuable items, which is why we keep them in the enhanced security of our Rare Book Room. We even have “The Cage” where the most valuable of our rare books are located. Our circulating collection consists of books printed in the last 35 years. The non-circulating collection is basically everything else. Some items in our rare books collection were placed there immediately after we acquired them while others were relocated from the non-circulating collection in the stacks.

Why would we move something from the stacks into the Rare Book Room?  There’s the standard definition: a rare book is scarce or otherwise hard to come by. Many rare books are old--the older some thing is, the less likely it is to have survived to the present day. But a book does not need to be old in order to be rare. Similarly, many rare books are valuable, since scarcity tends to drive up prices, but this is only true so long as a book is in demand. You can have the last remaining copy of On the Training and Taming of Llamas, but unless there are other people interested in historical llama domestication practices, the book will not be very valuable.

Many of the library’s books could be considered rare. This is one of the reasons why our circulating collection is limited to books printed in the last 35 years. At a small library with a very particular topical focus like ours, many books are from small religious publishers printed in small quantities. Many of them are now out of print which would make replacing them if they become damaged or lost difficult.

Unlike college or public libraries, the stacks at the CLA are “closed,” meaning only the staff have access and will retrieve books for patrons. This gives us an added layer of security and protection for all of our material and this means we can be more selective about which items require the added measures that the rare book room provides. Additionally, while the environment of the stacks is controlled for temperature and humidity, there are bound to be some fluctuations in such a large space that won’t always be caught quickly. The Rare Book Room is a smaller area with a climate that can be more tightly controlled for the books and archival materials which are the most fragile.

Right now, as we prepare to move the Rare Book Collection back into the Rare Book Room now that the renovation has been completed, we are taking all of these factors into account. Space in the Rare Book Room is limited and in “The Cage” more limited still, so we assess how valuable an item is in terms of how much money it is worth, but also how central it is to the library’s mission. We consider the age and physical stability of an item. We consider grouping similar items together so they can be co-located, such as facsimiles and their originals.Like a parent, I may think all of our books are special, but ‘rare’ is best measured in differences of degree rather than of kind, and sorted out in a process that is sometimes more art than science.