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Rare books and special collections: Valuation of books and other printed items

The State Library has a significant collection of rare books and manuscripts from all over the world. They have been donated or purchased over many years, often with the assistance of the Friends of the State Library of South Australia.


The State Library has many resources which can help people assess the value of a book, but State Library staff cannot give formal valuations. Expert advice is available from approved valuers or from secondhand and antiquarian dealers.

When trying to place a value on a book, it is important to remember that, like any other second-hand or antiquarian item, it has no absolute value. Its commercial worth, if any, will depend on a number of factors, including its condition, possibly its age, its rarity, its desirability as a collector's item, and whether or not there is any demand for such an item. Books are not necessarily valuable just because of their age.

There are many reasons why people seek to value books

Trash or treasure Owners may have been left some books which look old, and wonder if they might bring in some money. Or they may be moving into a smaller place and don't know what to do with their books, but would like some money for them, or failing that, advice about who might like them.

Sentimental value Owners may have some books which they treasure, and don't want to sell at this point, but they may require some conservation work. Are they worth what it would cost?

Restoration Owners may want to have an idea of the value of their books in order to assess what sort of conservation work is appropriate.

Insurance Owners may want to seek a value on books for insurance or probate purposes, in which case this valuation must be done through an accredited valuer.

How the State Library can help

Although State Library staff are not qualified or permitted to value books, just as they are not qualified to offer a legal or a medical opinion in the context of a reference enquiry, what Information Desk staff can do is assist people to discover more information about the books they are seeking to value, and whether they are indeed trash or treasure. This guide can assist people to determine things such as how many editions of their work were printed and when, whether copies of a particular edition have appeared on the antiquarian book market, and many other interesting pieces of information which will add to the sentimental attachment to a book. Most of the resources listed here are held in the Library's Ready Reference collection near the Information Desk, and staff can show enquirers these resources without delay.

There are a number of book binders listed in the yellow pages under Bookbinders. As well, the government agency Artlab provides a fee-based conservation service.

In the case of valuing for probate or insurance, people will need to check with their insurance company for their policy. It may be desirable to keep a list of books, or a photocopy of title pages, and to separately insure valuable items over $1,000.

As a very general guide, books that may be in high demand include:

  • any book printed anywhere before 1500
  • books printed in England before 1640
  • books printed in America before 1800
  • books printed in Australia before 1850
  • first or best editions of important literary or historical works
  • books with illustrations by a collected artist
  • examples of important developments in the craft of printing.

Factors of interest about books

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:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 Heritage Collections Council produced the guide reCollections: caring for collections across Australia which contains excellent information on storing, displaying, handling, maintaining and repairing books (and other formats).


The Library has a number of publications which are price guides for books, and there are two different types: the auction record which can be thought of as the wholesale value of the book and the book dealers' price guide which lists the retail price of the book. The Library holds American, British (ceased in 1997), and Australian book auction records. These auction records are a general guide only, because the book in question must be comparable to the one described in the auction records, particularly with respect to quality of binding, general state of repair and the edition.

There is no such thing as a fixed value of objects such as books, or an established rate of declining value for years of wear as in car insurance. Prices may fluctuate from year to year or within a year depending on whether a particular item was in fine or used condition, or sold at a specialist auction attracting keen competition, or whether there was something interesting about it which was not noted in the auctioneer's catalogue entry. Sometimes variations are simply due to changes in the economic climate at the time. Auction prices are frequently wholesale prices, which may be recorded in overseas currencies, and will be affected by inflation. The overseas market is different from the Australian one, and Adelaide is different from Sydney, but sometimes local markets are better than national or international ones for certain sorts of items.

Overseas book sale prices

Current prices for out-of-print, used books and collectables can be obtained on the AbeBooks website which is a centralised resource for thousands of professional booksellers worldwide.

Older values can be accessed from:

  • American book prices current 1986 - 2004. Divided into two parts: Autographs & Manuscripts and Books which have realised at least A$65 at selected auction houses in the United States in particular, but also in Europe, England and Australia
  • Book auction records 1902/3 - 1997. An English publication which lists English language books which realised at least A$140 at selected auction houses during the year's season in the United Kingdom in particular, and also in the United States, Australia and South Africa.
  • Bookman's price index 1964 - 2004. An American publication which lists books priced at A$150 or more from antiquarian book dealer catalogues from the United States, Canada and the British Isles.

Valuation of Australian books

Australian and South Australian publications, even modest-looking items such as pamphlets, may be of value as collector's items. The principle is not to be deceived by an unimpressive appearance. A useful starting point is to check the bibliographic details in standard reference books, such as:

Australian book sale prices

  • Australian book auction records 1969/70 - 2006. Lists books published in and/or about Australasia, the Pacific, New Guinea and Australia which have realised A$45 or more at least once in the two year period covered by each volume. If a book does not appear in any of the book auction records it may still have value, but more likely it probably has little or no monetary value.
  • Guide to fine and rare Australasian books 1986-1995 by Brian Howes. Lists Australiana books priced at A$50 or over from Australian and New Zealand antiquarian book dealers' catalogues

Secondhand or antiquarian catalogues

It is interesting to note that printed secondhand or antiquarian book dealers' catalogues have become something of a thing of the past, replaced by listings on the internet. The State Library has some of these catalogues which can be found in the Library catalogue under the subject heading Catalogs, booksellers.

Internet resources

The internet is a huge resource lists out of print books as well as the latest publications. As with everything on the internet, the authority of websites can vary, and in terms of valuing one's own books, the prices shown may be the asking prices not the achieved prices. The secondhand book dealers' market was revolutionised by the internet, and printed secondhand book catalogues are much less common now. Some specialist internet sites are:

Locating a secondhand or antiquarian book dealer

Dealers in second-hand or antiquarian books are listed in the yellow pages of the telephone directory under the heading, Books secondhand and/or antiquarian, and there are many listed in Adelaide and the metropolitan area, and in some country centres. A dealer will not be able to give a valuation over the telephone, because the actual items and their condition need to be assessed first hand. However, an experienced dealer can often give a negative opinion over the telephone on the basis of a general description of the category of material under discussion. For example, a group of school books, Book Club editions of popular works and lightweight coffee table books are unlikely to be of value.

If required, a list of the books may be provided for the dealer. Information should be taken from the title page, 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. However, a dealer will need to look at the actual copies in order to determine their condition and value. Other lists and information about book dealers can be found in Australian and New Zealand Association of Antiquarian Booksellers website.

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

There are some recent secondhand catalogues dealing with children's literature in the Library's Children's Literature Research Collection (see tab on this page). The Library's Content Services Librarian for the Children's Literature Research Collection may be able to give some assistance with these. Individual books can also be searched on AbeBooks which lists many children's books.


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.

Periodicals (also known as 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 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 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 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 regularly and welcomes new members.

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.