This is something I have been thinking about for a while. Antiquarian booksellers are always concerned with rarity, and look books up to see who else has a copy, either currently for sale, in a library somewhere, or perhaps offered once at an auction. Obviously, just because you find another copy, doesn’t make it the same as yours; there is always the question of condition (is the book in its original binding, or has it been rebound?), or association (did it belong to someone interesting, or was it inscribed by the author?). But I suspect that most people, when they look a book up in an online database such as COPAC or WorldCat, and find there are five copies located in libraries, just leave it at that: ‘those libraries have the same book as me’.
But here I’d like to present four examples of books which tell a different story. All come from the nineteenth century, and all are books relating to Exeter Cathedral (a personal interest of mine).
Example 1. George Oliver, The History of Exeter (Exeter: Printed by R. Cullum, 1821).
Two copies, both in the original publisher’s boards: one uncut (and thus taller), the paper on the spine the same as the rest of the binding; the other, trimmed, with a cloth spine. Both have printed spine labels, both priced 10s., but the labels are different.
Example 2. Philip Freeman, The Architectural History of Exeter Cathedral (Exeter: Henry S. Eland … London: Bell and Sons, ).
Two copies of the first edition of Freeman’s book, in brown and red cloth.
Example 3. Thomas B. Worth. Exeter Cathedral and its Restoration (Printed for the Author by William Pollard … Exeter. 1878).
Again, two copies of the same book, privately printed this time, in brown and green cloth.
Example 4. Frances Mary Peard, Prentice Hugh (London: National Society’s Depository … New York: Thomas Whittaker … ).
A children’s book, a fictional retelling of the building of the Cathedral in the thirteenth century. The title-pages here are different, as well as the bindings: the lettering of ‘National Society’ on the spine, and the gilt-lettering on the cover of one (with patterned NSD endpapers), but not the other (and which has plain black endpapers).
These four examples were discovered quite by chance, but are sufficient to highlight the fact that, even in one, highly specific possible collecting area, how many variants may be found.
Postscript. It is interesting to note that the internet, oft bemoaned as a poor method of buying books, actually can help a lot in identifying such variants. Many booksellers, if issuing a catalogue with any of the above books in it, might well not illustrate the books, and may not mention the colour of cloth. But the internet bookseller often posts a photo of the book concerned, which can quickly draw the collector’s eye.