Information on Old Books

Information on Old Books

For determining the value of old books and for formal appraisals by qualified experts, please see the sections on Price Guides and Auction Listings and Appraisals and Booksellers Directories under Reference Tools for Book Collectors below.

The Smithsonian Libraries does not make appraisals of old books.

You can look up much information about the history of your book on your own by using sources that are widely available in public and academic libraries. The next section on Reference Tools for Book Collectors lists a variety of helpful books.

The Smithsonian Libraries may be able to provide information on the significance of old books in specific fields of interest (which include the history of science and technology, natural history, selected aspects of American history, and the history of the decorative arts). Call the Special Collections Department (202-633-3872) or email

With few exceptions (such as popular fiction relating to the history of aeronautics), the Smithsonian Libraries does not collect works of fiction, literature, religion, or philosophy. For collections in those fields, please consult the works listed under Author and Subject Guides under Reference Tools for Book Collectors below.


The Smithsonian Institution Libraries is always grateful for unrestricted donations in specific fields of interest (the history of science and technology, natural history, primary materials in American history, and the history of the decorative arts) and will be happy to provide information on how to make a donation. Donors are recognized with a bookplate in the volume(s) and mentioned in the Institution's annual report (Annals). Appraisals for tax or other legal purposes are the responsibility of the donor, and the Libraries can provide referrals to experts. Again, call the Special Collections Department (202-633-3872) or email

Reference Tools for Book Collectors

Publication History

The first step is to determine the bibliographic identity and publishing history of your book. For this, the Smithsonian Institution Libraries recommends the following resources:

  • The National union catalog: Pre-1956 imprints (NUC) (London: Mansell, 1968-81), which is a published version of a combined card catalog for several hundred libraries in the U.S., including the Library of Congress. Each record includes the NUCabbreviations for the library(ies) that have a copy of the book.
  • WorldCat from OCLC, Inc., a similar catalog developed as a computer database to which thousands of libraries in the U.S. and around the world contribute. It, too, lists the various libraries around the world that hold a copy of each book listed.

A large public or university library will probably have access to both of these catalogs. Your librarian may have to search OCLC for you, since it is not always available directly to readers. Whichever you use, there will be separate listings for each known or suspected edition of your author and title. You should be able to match your copy with one or another of these records (usually on the basis of imprint, i.e., the city, publisher, and date; but sometimes by other descriptive information). Then you will know exactly what you have and how it fits in to the publication history of the work.

Author and Subject Guides (published bibliographies)

There are published bibliographies for many specific authors and subjects, consisting of detailed analyses of every edition of every title ever published by the author or on the subject. Such bibliographies can be found in library reference areas or looked up in the library's subject catalog. The compilers of these bibliographies have searched the NUC and OCLC, as well as other sources, and have gone to the holding libraries to see the books. They present you with the whole story neatly summarized.

For more information about a book and its significance in its field, you may want to contact libraries that specialize in that field. Books with this information may be found in the reference section of libraries. They include:

  • Lee Ash and William G. Miller, compilers. Subject collections: A guide to special book collections and subject emphases as reported by university, college, public, and special libraries and museums in the United States and Canada(7th ed. New Providence NJ: R.P. Bowker, 1993), which lists thousands of American and Canadian libraries by their subject strengths.

  • Modoc Press, compiler. Special collections in college and university libraries (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1989), in which the libraries are listed geographically and their collections described, with an index of subject specialties.

Price Guides and Auction Listings (values)

For tax or insurance purposes, valuations must be made by an expert such as an antiquarian or specialist bookdealer who knows the current market. See Appraisals and Booksellers Directories below.

About market values, a word of caution: the monetary value of a book is what someone else is willing to pay for it. The demand for any particular author or title may fluctuate up and down over time. In addition, any individual copy's value will vary on the basis of its edition, scarcity, condition, completeness, and association. Any valuation or appraisal is an educated guess, applicable only to a specific copy at a specific moment in time.

There are many published price guides for popular and collectible subjects that attempt to list current rates at the time of publication. Such guides can usually be found in your local library or in the Reference or Collectibles sections of bookstores. Up-to-dateness is crucial - be sure to use only the most current or recently published guides. A sampling of the many that are available includes:

  • Literature first editions: Allen and Patricia Ahearn. Collected books: The guide to values. 1998 edition (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1997). The Ahearns, proprietors of the antiquarian bookstore Quill & Brush (1137 Sugarloaf Mountain Rd., Dickerson MD 20842; telephone 301-874-3200; email:; web: also produce and sell individual author price guides.

  • Civil War: Tom Broadfoot. Civil War books: A priced checklist, with advice(4th edition. Wilmington NC: Broadfoot Publishing Co., 1996).

  • Comic books: Robert M. Overstreet. The Overstreet comic book price guide(28nd edition. New York: Avon Books, 1998).

  • Newspapers: Jim Lyons. Collecting American newspapers(Los Altos CA: Jim Lyons, 1989). Too old for values but very informative about old newspapers.

  • Cookbooks: Col. Bob Allen. A guide to collecting cookbooks and advertising cookbooks(Paducah KY: Collector Books, 1998, c1990). With up-dated values since 1990.

  • Children's books: E. Lee Baumgarten. Price guide for children's and illustrated books for the years 1880-1945. 1993 edition ( [Martinsburg WV]: E.L. Baumgarten, c1993).

Many of the prices listed in such guides are based on published auction-sales records, which you can consult in public libraries or used-book stores.

  • American book prices current(Washington CT: American Book Prices Current, 1895- ), published as an annual compilation, with 5-year indexes, of books that sold for $50 or more at the major U.S. and European auctions.

  • Book auction records(Folkstone, Kent, UK: Dawson, 1902- ), published annually, covering books sold for $100 or more at specific U.S. and European auctions.

  • Bookman's price index (Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1964- ), published semi-annually with periodic indexes, based primarily on bookdealer catalogs and listing the prices asked, not necessarily the prices paid.

Remember that prices listed in such works are for specific copies. The copy sold may have been in pristine condition with a special binding, or it may have been signed by a famous owner, making it more valuable than usual; or conversely, it may have been falling apart and sold "w.a.f." (with all faults) for a rock-bottom price. Such details are important to bear in mind when using auction or bookdealer prices to determine what your book might be worth. In addition, auctions are notorious for creating record high (and low) prices; a single listing can be quite misleading and unreliable. A series of sale pricesof copies in comparable condition to yours, at least some of which are recent years, is desirable in establishing a "ballpark" value for your copy. But high or low, the prices listed in these auction and bookdealer records do not guarantee the price for which your copy of the book may sell.

Then again, there may be no listings for the books you have. This sort of negative evidence is ambiguous; there is no way to know whether this is because the book has not come up for sale (and may therefore be scarce), or because of low value and lack of interest.

Appraisals and Booksellers Directories

For an actual appraisal of your copy's rarity and value, contact an antiquarian or second-hand bookdealer. In many cities, the telephone yellow pages will provide listings of local dealers. In addition, there are many published directories of bookdealers.

  • The annual Membership directory of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, indexed by geographical location and subject specialty. For a copy call or write the ABAA, 20 West 44th Street, New York NY 10036-6604; telephone 212-944-8291; email
  • The International directory of antiquarian booksellers, published by the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (c/o the ABAA, as above).
  • The American Society of Appraisers will provide referrals to certified professional personal-property appraisers. Call or write the ASA, P.O. Box 17265, Washington DC 20041, or at 555 Herndon Parkway, Suite 125, Herndon VA 20170; telephone: 703-478-2228.
  • The Appraisers Association of America, Inc. will also provide referrals to member appraisers. Call or write the AAA, 386 Park Avenue South, Suite 2000, New York NY 10016; telephone 212-889-5404.
  • Ruth E. Robinson, compiler. Buy books where - sell books where(9th edition. Morgantown WV: Ruth E. Robinson Books, 1994), listing booksellers both by subject specialty and by geographical location.
  • James M. and Karen Ethridge, editors. Antiquarian, specialty, and used book sellers: A subject guide and directory, 1997-98(Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1997).
  • In the Sheppard's series of directories: Sheppard's book dealers in North America (12th edition. Farnham, Surrey, UK: Richard Joseph Publishers Ltd., 1993), and Sheppard's directory of dealers of ephemera (1st edition. Farnham, Surrey, UK: Richard Joseph Publishers Ltd., 1994).

There may be a fee for the appraisal, or, if you sell the book through the dealer, a commission deducted from the price paid.

Dealers usually need to see the book itself in order to identify and appraise it. If you are unable to show the book to the dealer in person, he or she will need a photograph or photocopy of at least the title page, the back side of the title page (also called the copyright page), the first and last pages of text, and the outer covers and spine in order to evaluate an individual copy. CAUTION: It is better to photograph the book (clear, close-up snap-shots are usually fine) than to photocopy from it because books are easily damaged when opened and pressed down on the copier's glass plate.

Prepared by the
Special Collections Department