Thanks, Jason for your great question! Our staff has been busy working on it and here is what we’ve found:
First we have to come up with a working definition of “book” because in today’s library a book can take many forms- print, digital, audio, and more.
It is difficult to track the oldest print book on the library’s physical shelves by using the catalog. The oldest book by publication date in our library is:
An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, which was originally published in 1776- however our copy is a 1937 reprint.
We all agree that the oldest print books we own were published in the early 1900s (original copies, not reprints). Here is one of our oldest original books at JSRCC Library: The South in the Building of a Nation, published in 1909 right here in Richmond.
We also have access to online books with publication dates going back as far as the 1500s. Digitization of ancient books makes these astounding collections accessible with a few mouse clicks on some of the library’s research databases. Look at English Verse Drama to pull up online copies of dramas from the 16th century and beyond, including the works of the great William Shakespeare. African-American Poetry, 1760-1900 will provide a reading from early American books of poetry.
Many university libraries own special collections and archives that include very old books (early publication dates and original copies, not reprints). Community college libraries generally do not own the special collections found in college and university libraries. To ensure the well-being of rare books and manuscripts, extensive climate control and security is usually needed.
Now with the ability to digitize these old books, you can read them through your computer. To visit some special collections online in the Richmond area, look at Special Collections at VCU Libraries, University of Richmond, and Library of Virginia. Most of these digitized collections include photographs, manuscripts, maps, and other items, as well as books. Go even further, over to Charlottesville, and you’ll have access to one of Virginia’s best special collections libraries at the University of Virginia.
In a future post, we’ll explore the question, “What is the oldest book in the world?”