Smithsonian Institution Libraries

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 Institution 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 Institution 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 Institution Libraries does not collect works of fiction or literature nor of religion and 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:

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:

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:

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.

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 prices of 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.

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
Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Telephone: 202-633-3872
Fax: 202-633-9102

September 1998

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