PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.
The Library routinely receives inquiries about the value of old books. It is a difficult question to answer, made easier in recent years by the volume of information on the Internet providing specific examples of the pricing for book titles. The bottom line is that only a very small number of books in the marketplace are considered "rare" or of great value. In simple terms, a book achieves the status of being "rare" only when the demand for it is greater than the supply. This means that "rare" books can come and go in the antiquarian marketplace. Librarians and book dealers will generally state that age has little to do with the value of a book.
General guidelines state that anything published before 1501, British books published before 1641, and books published in the U.S. prior to 1850 should be checked for possible rare book status. Those guidelines are subject to factors of importance, condition, and demand. Like any antiques, old books are subject to their condition. Books in poor condition lose a great deal of their value, if they have any value. Worn bindings, torn pages, mildew, or missing pages can cause a book to have no value. Former library editions with markings are generally worth nothing in the book marketplace.
Bibles are books with great sentimental value, but little monetary value. Only early Bibles from the Renaissance Period, or some specific publications from the 16th and 17th century are rare. Collected works of a particular author are seldom rare. Common from 1880-1920, publishing houses reprinted all of an author's works and numbered them. Sometimes, a beautifully bound set will bring a high price due to the binding.
Encyclopedias have no value. They are published for their current information and are obsolete in a short time after publication. An exception is the original 1768 "Encyclopaedia Britannica" in three volumes. Be aware of 1960s reprints of this edition, which were done well enough to fool even seasoned book dealers.
Old school textbooks have no monetary value, except for some published prior to 1850. People think that the well-known "McGuffey Readers" are all valuable, but it is specifically the 1836-1856 copies, and only if in good condition.
Some newspapers bring interest with book dealers, but most are simply old newspapers. Certain editions published on historic days may bring a larger price, but beware of reprinted editions that may look like the real thing. The day Lincoln was assassinated, and the day Washington died are two favorites for reprinting, and some were done so long ago they look real.
We hear a lot about "first editions." They are the first published appearance of a literary work and generally bring a higher price than later printings. Research is needed to confirm the status.
The new Internet sources for old books are revealing. The same book in the same condition will be offered for sale at a whole range of prices. Alibris www.alibris.com provides access to millions of books offered for sale from all across the country. The Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA) www.abaa.org has resources to for the beginning bookseller. Bibliofind www.bibliofind.com is Amazon's division for rare, used, and out-of-print books and can be a resource for simply learning about an author's works. The nation's most popular online auction site, Ebay www.ebay.com has numerous categories for old books, and can help establish value. Of course, you can always own a book, just because you like it!