Help Me Date a Book!
September 27, 2008 6:44 PM   Subscribe

How might one go about deducing the age of a book with no publication date printed inside of it?

Antique books acquired at auction; estimated origin late 19th to early 20th century; most of them are Googlable but some are not. My wife suggests that the inclusion of the occasional colour illustration (on different paper) might help gauge the age. At what point did relatively inexpensive books have access to sufficiently cheap technology to achieve this? Any other practices that might help mark a decade for us? Help me, publishing historians, you're my only hope.
posted by CheeseburgerBrown to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You can look up your book in university library catalogs or union catalogs such as Worldcat; they may have publishing date information that is gleaned from other sources (such as when they purchased the book, or some other method). This unverified date information is usually represented in brackets.
posted by gyusan at 6:50 PM on September 27, 2008

Have you tried finding the title at WorldCat?
posted by XMLicious at 6:51 PM on September 27, 2008

And if that fails, you could try the LOC catalog
posted by meta_eli at 7:16 PM on September 27, 2008

You can often find out this info by doing advanced searches on ABE. Pay special attention to similar-sounding books that are listed by antiquarian booksellers who are members of ABAA (Antiquarian Booksellers Assoc. of America), ABAC (Canada), ABA (UK).

You could also take it to a friendly antiquarian book dealer and ask for their help.
posted by Beardman at 7:49 PM on September 27, 2008

Another thought: unless these were privately printed and barely circulated, you shouldn't have to go so far as to seek out an art conservator to test the paper. There's got to be a record of the book's existence somewhere.
posted by Beardman at 7:51 PM on September 27, 2008

If you can't find the title listed anywhere, try researching any author, editor, and/or illustrator names in the books. Any biographic info you find, even if it's not much more than birth and death dates, will help you narrow it down. If you're lucky, you'll find some real info about their careers which will give clues.

Also, research the publisher. Even with publishers which were around for a long time, there can be differences in the exact form of their name, city of publication, and logo which can tell you in which period of the publisher's history the book was printed.

I've been amazed at the info I've been able to turn up online without the need to do library research. It can be like following a trail of bread crumbs, with one fact leading to others, till you can connect the dots. I have, though, seen a lot of bad info; mostly bibliographic references in other publications with incorrect dates or other facts of publication, so it pays to try to find several independent sources. This is further complicated by one source blindly copying info from another (incorrect) source without credit. (This is why proper academic publications are so full of references – to give the paper trail for future researchers.)

And yes, looking for physical and design clues can help, but may be misleading. For example, I've seen typically Victorian-era typography in books published well into the twentieth century. On the other hand, the use of a particular typeface can tell you the earliest possible date of publication.

Getting off track of the type of research you're doing, I've been amazed at the gems I've found scanned and searchable in Google Book Search. Sources I've needed to check (which exist locally only at academic and historical libraries) I've found complete, downloadable PDF copies. I recommend searching for the above facts of your publications in pre-web sources on Google Books.
posted by D.C. at 12:03 AM on September 28, 2008

One other search engine worth trying is, which is a federated book search engine. It looks at multiple commercial new and used book sites and returns combined results.
posted by Toekneesan at 8:07 AM on September 28, 2008

The color tip-in is not that unusual and has been done since well before the Victorian age. That's probably not going to help. And color is almost always printed on a coated paper, so that's probably not going to help either. Catalogs are your best bet. Surely they printed more than one.
posted by Toekneesan at 8:13 AM on September 28, 2008

Can't answer right now the specific question about when tipped in color illustrations became cheap, but I work in a used/antiquarian book shop, and people bring us books like this all the time; we're always happy to help them figure out what it is and might be worth, with no fee or obligation to sell it to us. You can learn a lot on your own over the net, yes, but almost certainly your best bet is to take them to someone like my boss, who's been selling and collecting antique books for 40 years and will be able to use things like the binding, fonts, cover design, type of illustrations, publisher's name, etc., to help date them.

Keep in mind that most "antique" books from the late 1800s/early 1900s are fairly worthless, even those with a few color plates in them. There were an awful lot of cheap reprint houses back then, and even more mediocre authors no one's given a rat's ass about for 100 years.

Seriously, though: Most rare book dealers listed in your local phone book do this kind of appraisal every day, for free, even if you admit up front you're not sure you want to sell.
posted by mediareport at 7:36 PM on September 28, 2008

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