Posted on: 10 May 2015

Rare Book Guide:

Your Old Books

This guide addresses some frequently asked questions about rare and older books and their values. The answers are meant only as general responses to these questions, and many possible exceptions are not described.

1. What makes a book rare?

Millions of books, pamphlets, magazines, newspapers, and broadsides have been published since the invention of printing more than five hundred years ago. Only a small portion of these pieces, however, would be considered “rare” by specialists. In simple terms, books achieve a degree of rarity only when demand exceeds supply. Unfortunately, there are no easy formulas for determining rarity.

2. What makes a book important?

People value books either because of their contents or because of their physical characteristics. First editions of important literary or historical works and initial reports of scientific discoveries or inventions are prime examples of books that are important because of their contents. Illustrated books that give a new interpretation of a text or are the work of an esteemed artist are also valued. Books that were suppressed or censored may be both important and scarce, since few copies may have survived. Physical characteristics, such as a special binding; an early use of a new printing process; or an autograph, inscription, or marginal annotations of a famous person; may also contribute to a book’s importance and its market price.

3. Does scarcity increase a book's value?

A book known to exist in only a few copies may have significant monetary value if collectors and libraries prize it. Searching the Internet using services like,,, or can give you an idea of how many copies of a book are currently being offered for sale. For information about how many copies are held by libraries, your local librarian can help you access databases such as OCLC’s WorldCat. Regardless of scarcity, a book without important text or distinguishing physical characteristics is likely to have little market value.

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