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RBMS Publications Committee (Revision 2011)
This guide addresses some frequently asked questions about rare and older books and their values. The answers are meant only as general responses to these questions, and many possible exceptions are not described. No attempt has been made to identify or to evaluate individual books, nor does RBMS have the resources to respond to such requests. The appendix lists online and print resources for more information on the questions covered.
No single work has been printed more often than the Bible. Because they are so common, most Bibles have no significant monetary value. Certain important editions of the Bible, however, are collectible: the earliest printed Bibles dating from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; the 1611 printings of the first authorized English (King James) version; and a variety of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century oddities such as the “Breeches” Bible, the “Vinegar” Bible, and the “Wicked” Bible, which have some misprint or peculiar wording. Most Bibles that contain handwritten genealogical or other family information do not have market value, unless the families or individuals were famous.
Sermons and Religious Instruction
Like Bibles, many other types of religious books, such as hymnals and other worship books, collections of sermons, and books of religious instruction were intended for wide circulation. Great quantities were printed as cheaply as possible, making them both less scarce and less attractive to collectors. There are some exceptions. Early Shaker tracts, for example, are considered important and may be quite rare, resulting in greater demand and higher prices.
Collected Editions of an Author’s Work
When authors become popular and well established, publishers often issue collected editions of their works. Such editions may be offered in special bindings and may even be limited and signed, but they are seldom rare. Exceptions include editions published by fine presses or those with historically significant editors, which may be valued by collectors or libraries for that reason.
Since encyclopedias are published and purchased for the currency of their information, obsolete editions of modern encyclopedias have little monetary value, whatever the historical interest of their articles. The eleventh edition (1911) of the Encyclopædia Britannica may be one exception. Complete sets of encyclopedias published before 1800 also have some market value, and single volumes proportionately less.
Old schoolbooks and college textbooks fall into the category of second-hand books with a few exceptions. There is a market for early American primers (for example, the Eclectic Reader of William Holmes McGuffey), although prices vary considerably depending on the edition and condition. Illustrated textbooks printed before 1850 are also sought after, as are early examples that instructed students about topics now studied, such as the place of African Americans, women, or immigrant groups in society.
Reprints and Facsimiles
Reprinting important texts in typographic or photographic facsimile is a common and inexpensive means of producing a previously printed text. Such facsimiles are generally not rare and are valued as used books. Extremely high-quality reproductions of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts and early printed books, however, can be quite expensive. Color facsimiles published during the nineteenth century are also valued by collectors when they were produced using innovative printing techniques such as collotype or chromolithography.
The term “limited edition” is reserved for editions in which copies contain an explicit “limitation statement,” usually on the back of the title page or on a separate page at the beginning or end of the volume. The limitation statement gives the total number of copies, sometimes with a breakdown of how many copies were printed on a certain type of paper, or bound in a certain kind of binding, or reserved or withheld from sale. The number of the specific copy is often printed or added by hand (as in “no. 46 of 500”), sometimes with the autograph of the author(s), publisher, or other contributor. The size of an edition, whether explicitly limited or not, does not by itself determine a book’s rarity or value.
Contemporary authors routinely sign many copies of their books at publicity events organized to promote sales. Because they are common, such autographs typically add little to the market value of the book. Authors also sign books on other occasions, and they sometimes inscribe and present them to important associates and friends. Such “presentation” or “association” copies may command a premium price. Expert knowledge of the current market is needed in order to determine the value of a particular signed or inscribed copy.
Other documentation can be used to establish the value of your books. If you bought them, you can use your invoices or receipts. If you inherited them, any legal or fiscal documents that describe the transfer of property may contain information about their value. If you wish to take a tax deduction for donating them, and their combined value is less than $5,000, such documentation and/or copies of recent sale records of comparable items may be sufficient evidence. Donations of books with a value exceeding $5,000 require professional appraisal. Consult the freely downloadable IRS Publication 561 entitled Determining the Value of Donated Property or a tax adviser for details.
Many individuals who wish to sell their books are unsure of their worth and so must depend to a great extent on the trustworthiness and professional behavior of the dealer. Booksellers who are members of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America or the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers must abide by a strict code of ethics designed to protect their customers. When selecting booksellers with whom to do business, ask whether they belong to these organizations or have other verifiable credentials attesting to their integrity.
If you decide to sell your books to a bookseller, keep in mind that it costs booksellers money to run their businesses. In order to cover their overhead costs and turn a fair profit, they must offer you less for your books than they will sell them for—often a good deal less.
If you decide to sell your books yourself through an auction service, setting a reserve limit will ensure that you do not have to accept a bid for less than a certain minimum amount.
Libraries will welcome donations if the donated books fit their collection profile. Most public libraries focus on popular publications that circulate frequently. Many academic and research libraries are interested in acquiring rare and unique materials. School libraries, especially in impoverished areas, may welcome donations of used or older books. If the item does not fit its collection profile, the library may refuse the gift. Most libraries will also refuse donations that include restrictions on the use or disposition of the donated books.
The following appendix contains brief listings of easily accessible resources that are generally known and respected. Their mention here, however, does not imply any official endorsement by RBMS or guarantee of the accuracy or quality of information they present, nor should the omission of any resources be taken as an indication that they are not of good quality. The listings are not meant to be comprehensive, just good beginning points for further reading.
The web site of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA) features a "Collector’s Corner" with a variety of information for amateur book collectors, including "Introduction to Book Collecting," by Allen and Patricia Ahearn, and other "member publications"; a glossary of terms; a frequently asked questions page; and a list of "book collecting links." It also includes a searchable directory of ABAA member booksellers.
The web site of the Independent Online Booksellers Association (IOBA) includes glossaries of book terminology and condition definitions and a semi-annual magazine on book selling and collecting, the IOBA Standard. It also includes a searchable directory of IOBA member booksellers and links to multi-dealer databases and auction sites.
Rarebooks.info aims to be a comprehensive web resource for learning about rare books. It offers three levels of access: free, free with registration, and paid subscription membership. The free levels include access to a glossary of terms and links to libraries, museums, national associations, and private collections worldwide. The complete site is available in both English and French. Many other organizations and individuals maintain web sites that contain information, references, and links relevant to book collecting, book selling, book and printing history, and related topics. Entering these and other terms into Internet search engines will turn up a wealth of online resources.
Some classic books on book collecting that are still widely available include:
Book Collecting: A Modern Guide, Jean Peters, editor (Bowker, 1977). [ISBN: 0835209857] Modern Book Collecting, by Robert A. Wilson (Lyons Press, 1992). [ISBN: 1558211799].
ABC for Book Collectors, by John Carter, 8th edition revised by Nicolas Barker. (Oak Knoll Press, 2004) [ISBN: 1584561122]
Nicholas Basbanes, who has lately revived the romance of book collecting with his popular trilogy on bibliophiles and bibliophilia throughout history (A Gentle Madness, Patience & Fortitude, A Splendor of Letters), has also written a practical guide for today’s aspiring book collectors: Among the Gently Mad: Strategies and Perspectives for the Book-Hunter in the 21st Century (New York: Henry Holt, 2002). [ISBN: 0805051597]
Fine Books & Collections (formerly OP Magazine) is a bi-monthly magazine with articles about book collectors and collecting, book fairs and auctions, and other news from the world of books and publishing.
Some popular guides to identifying and determining the value of books include:
Book Finds: How to Find, Buy, and Sell Used and Rare Books, by Ian C. Ellis, 2nd edition (Perigee, 2001) [ISBN: 0399526544]
Collected Books: The Guide to Values, by Allen and Patricia Ahearn (Putnam, 2002) [ISBN: 0399147810] (note: a new edition appears about every two years).
The Official Price Guide to Collecting Books, by Marie Tedford and Pat Goudey, 4th edition (House of Collectibles, 2002) [ISBN: 0609807692]
Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions, by Bill McBride, 6th edition (McBride, 2001) [ISBN: 0930313062]
Those who wish to buy and sell books online may find the following helpful:
Buying Books Online: Finding Bargains and Saving Money with Booksense Stores, Amazon Marketplace, and Other Online Sites, by Stephen Windwalker (Harvard Perspective Press, 2002) [ISBN: 0971577846]; and,
Selling Used Books Online: The Complete Guide to Bookselling at Amazon’s Marketplace and Other Online Sites, by Stephen Windwalker (Harvard Perspective Press, 2002) [ISBN: 0971577838]
American Book Prices Current is "an annual record of books, manuscripts, autographs, maps and broadsides sold at auction," available as a book or CD-ROM. Many major auction houses that handle fine and rare books, such as Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Swann Galleries, offer searchable databases of past and current sales from their web site. PBA Galleries also offers an online appraisal tool called BiblioBot that can be used to estimate market values of hardcover books. You can also estimate the current retail market values of used and rare books by comparing prices for similar books in databases and catalogs available on the web sites of online booksellers. If you need to find an appraiser in your area, the web sites of the Antiquarian Booksellers’s Association of America (ABAA), the American Society of Appraisers (ASA), and of the International Society of Appraisers each offer searchable directories by subject and dealer/appraiser location. Many booksellers also offer appraisal services, and may be competent in their areas of expertise even if they are not certified by ASA, ISA, or another agency. Request and check references and consult with a tax attorney until you are satisfied that you have found a qualified appraiser for your collection.
Although designed mainly to serve professionals, the following web sites also contain some information for general audiences on caring for books, papers, photographs, and other documents. Conservation OnLine Resources for Conservation Professionals (COoL) is "a full text library of conservation information . . . [concerning] library, archives and museum materials."
The Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) maintains on its web site lists of: frequently asked preservation questions, technical leaflets on various topics that are freely available online, preservation suppliers and services, and other online preservation resources.
The American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works (AIC) publishes online "Guidelines for Selecting a Conservator" and a database of conservators that can be searched by specialty and by area in North America. AIC’s "Caring for Your Treasures" brochures are available online and in print. Some commonly available non-technical guide books on preservation include: Preserving Your Family Treasures, by Michael Trinkley and Debi Hacker (Chicora Foundation, 1998). [ISBN: 1583170014]
Caring for Your Family Treasures: Heritage Preservation, by Jane S. Long and Richard W. Long (Abrams, 2000). [ISBN: 0810929872]
Ounce of Preservation: A Guide to the Care of Papers and Photographs, by Craig A. Tuttle (Rainbow Books, 1995). [ISBN 1568250215]
A Preservation Guide: Saving the Past and Present for the Future, by Barbara Sagraves (Ancestry.com: 1995). [ISBN 0916489590]
The original version of this pamphlet was produced in 1989 under the auspices of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section, Association of College and Research Libraries, by the late Peter Van Wingen, Specialist for the Book Arts, Rare and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress. It was revised by the RBMS Publications Committee in 1994.
In 1997, the RBMS Electronic Information Technologies Committee (ad hoc) published the revised text on the RBMS web site. The RBMS Publications Committee substantially revised and updated the text again in 2005. Copyright © 2005, American Library Association.
Anyone who wishes to create a link to this document from another web site or publish its url elsewhere may do so without requesting permission. Anyone who wishes to reproduce the entire document or portion thereof in any format, print or electronic, should seek permission from the current chair of the RBMS Publications Committee.