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Caring for your collections: What makes a book valuable?

This guide will help you look after your own books and papers. It will also explain how to get your books valued.

What makes a book valuable

Information about a published item should be taken from the title page and the back of the title page (its 'verso'), not the cover, and should include the name of the author, the exact title of the book, the name of the publisher, and the place and date of publication.

Date of publication

Date of publication is usually shown on the title page or the back of the title page, or, sometimes with older publications on the last page. It is usually a straightforward matter to find the date in one of the standard national bibliographies or databases listed below. If a date is not shown, handwritten inscriptions can be a guide, otherwise, as a last resort, an educated guess is called for. A book is not valuable just because it is old, and there are some books of great value published in the last 50 years. Library sources which are useful to check dates of publication are:

Edition

The particular edition is important in considering the value of a book. If a work is sought by collectors it will usually be sought in its first edition. Victorian fiction, for example, is unlikely to be valuable unless it is a first edition. Dickens is a good case in point, because his works were published in many editions in his lifetime. However, it is important to note that as every book has a first edition, not every first edition of every work will be sought after or have great monetary value.

Association copies

Any book may have additional value if it is an 'association copy', that is, associated with someone important by virtue of bearing a signature, dedication, inscription, annotations, bookplate or some proof that it belonged to that person's library.

Condition

The condition of a book is of great importance in determining its value, and this applies to the binding as well as the text. A book is not in good condition if it is stained or dirty, if the cover is loose or detached, or if there are loose or missing leaves. Collectors prefer a fine copy to a battered one, and a re-bound copy finds little favour, except in rare cases, since fine original condition is the collector's choice. Poor condition will detract considerably from, or even negate, whatever value a book might have in the commercial market.

Value

The monetary value of a book, like other commodities, depends on supply and demand. A book that is very rare, in the sense that very few if any other copies are known, but which is not desired by book buyers, would probably have little monetary value.

Price

If price(s) have been found and the book is in reasonable condition, these price(s) are indicative only, and do not mean that the book has that specific value, only that similar copies have sold for that or similar prices at a certain source. If no price is found for an item unlikely to be of much value, such as a 19th century edition of Shakespeare, then there is no reason to believe that the book is of any particular monetary value. If, on the other hand, a book has not been found in the published records or booksellers' catalogues, and it is suspected it is a desirable item, it would be worthwhile to contact a local antiquarian bookseller.

Rarity

The question of how 'rare' a book is, and/or how many copies there are, say, in Australia, is always of interest. However, it is difficult, if not impossible, to answer this, although a specialist antiquarian book dealer may be able to offer advice. Check Libraries Australia, the national bibliographic database to see if any copies are held in Australian libraries; there is however no means of establishing what is held by individuals. For most books it is usually not possible to find out how many copies were originally printed, let alone how many have survived. There are varying degrees of rarity, and the fact that a work exists in only a few copies will not automatically mean that it will have high monetary value. Demand for the work would need to be great for this to be the case.

Rebinds and repairs

Enquiries are frequently made about the rebinding and repair of books - where can it be done, by whom, is it worth doing, will it affect the book's value, and so on. As the State Library has its own conservation facilities, staff are not officially in a position to recommend local craftsmen, so people should contact binders directly for quotes on the work they want done. Rebinding will destroy the original condition desired by collectors, but if the damage is already done, repairs can help prevent further deterioration. Either process will probably, in the majority of cases, cost more than the book is worth in the commercial market, and exceptions to this are probably best not tampered with, especially if the owner is hoping to sell the item. The Collections Council has developed a wonderful website reCollections: caring for collections across Australia which can be searched by category such as books and produces excellent information on storing, displaying, handling, maintaining and repairing books.

Categories of material

The Bible

The most frequently reprinted book in the western world is the Bible, and by its nature it is one of the most carefully treasured. Unless a Bible is printed by a private press, of which the Doves Bible (1903-1905) is an example, or unless it is bound in a very special binding, it is unlikely to have much commercial value if it was published after the 16th century. Rare and important editions are easily recognised by experts: these include the Gutenberg Bible, generally considered to be the first book printed using moveable type; the first Bible in each language; the first Polyglot Bible; the first Authorized (King James) Version and so on. Then there are oddities such as the Breeches Bible, the Vinegar Bible and the Wicked Bible, which command special prices for some misprint or curious phrase in the text. Although of sentimental value, it is fairly safe to say of all the rest that they are largely without value in the commercial market. An exception might be if the book bears the inscription or annotation of a person of note.

A useful reference work to identify Bibles, but which does not give prices, is the Historical catalogue of printed editions of the English Bible 1525-1961 revised and expanded by Arthur S Herbert reprinted in 1968. This work lists English editions of Holy Scripture chronologically by year of publication, and describes each one. It is useful for checking quickly if there is anything special about the item in hand, and also for finding publication dates. It has useful indexes of publishers, place, translators, compilers and so on.

Children's books

The library holds some guides to collecting children's literature. Individual titles can be searched on Abebooks which lists many children's books.

Maps

Maps require specialist knowledge, and do not really fall within the scope of book valuations. However, as many maps made their first appearance in books, an experienced book dealer may well be able to assist. Publications by Ronald V. Tooley such as Mapping of Australia published in 1979 provide extensive information about maps. There is also T. M. Perry's A guide to maps of Australia in books published 1780 - 1830: an annotated cartobibliography published in 1996 and Robert Clancy's The mapping of Terra Australis published in 1995. Some antiquarian book dealers may be found on the internet. The State Library's Content Services Librarian responsible for Maps may be able to help.

Miniature books

Books in miniature format have been produced since the early days of printing, but it became a popular form of novelty book production in the 19th century, and they are quite common from this period. The Library has some publications which deal with miniature books, listed in the Library catalogue under the subject Miniature books.

Magazines or journals

Generally speaking, only complete or extensive runs of certain periodical titles will be found in auction records and price guides. Periodicals in subjects such as art and anthropology can be of value, but individual issues or volumes are, in the main, unlikely to be fetch much. As a general rule, the more popular the periodical is, such as National geographic, the less likely is it to be of value.

Newspapers

Newspapers are in a similar category to periodicals, where even single issues of early newspapers printed in Australia are not of great financial value, although their content may be of considerable interest.

Shakespeare

Shakespeare is a case similar to that of the Bible, and again the valuable editions are almost invariably from the early 17th century or a private press.

Book collecting

The Book Collectors Society of South Australia meets quarterly and welcomes new members and can be contacted through the secretary, Etta Clark, on (08) 8266 2655 .

There are a number of books in the Library catalogue under the subject entry Book collecting, which will also refer you to related relevant subject headings. In this way you can find more background to the points mentioned above, and a better idea of how the antiquarian book market operates. An international and a home grown classic in this area are:

  • ABC for book collectors by John Carter 6th edition, London, 1980. Informative and often entertaining definitions of the terms which serious book collectors should know. There is also a 7th edition published in 1998.
  • 'Collecting books' an article by Valmai Hankel in Biblionews and Australian notes & queries volume 6, numbers 3 and 4 of December 1981. Written by the State Library's former Rare Books Librarian, this is a practical guide for the beginning book collector in Australia.

The State Library wishes to thank Adelaide antiquarian book dealer Michael Treloar for his assistance in preparing this material.