Iren L. Snavely, Jr.
Rare Books Librarian,
State Library of Pennsylvania
How to Determine Book Condtion?
One of the most common questions people ask-whether bibliophiles or the heirs to family treasures—is what is the condition of my book? Adjectives such as “like new,” “fine,” “good.” “fair,” “satisfactory,” or “poor” and descriptions like “reading copy” or “working copy” most often characterize the general condition of the book. Although such terms can be subjective, common sense might suggest the following standards:
Fine—The binding, front and rear boards of the book must be intact. The book is in its original binding. The pages ought to be crisp, clean-not dirty or dull from handling; without tears or water stains.
Good—Like a book in fine condition, one in good condition will have an intact, though not necessarily original, binding. The book might have undergone earlier conservation. Neither the boards nor the text block should be detached. The pages should not be soiled, brittle or worn, although there might be some foxing. Foxing, an age-related condition on old papers, books or documents, causes spots or browning. The name derives from the reddish-brown color of the stains or the rust color of ferric oxide, which may be involved.
Fair—A book in fair condition ought to have its binding, text block, and front and rear boards intact. The title and other pages might be soiled and thumbed from earlier use, with minor tears and stains, but none should be missing. Foxing is common. However, the book should not have major tears and creases.
Satisfactory—A book in satisfactory condition might show wear, and not have its front and rear board attached, but they should not be missing. The binding might be strained, but should not be splitting. The pages should not have major tears, creases or water stains, although some pages might be detached and previous repairs might be evident. The title page may be torn or missing, and other pages might be soiled or foxed, but not mildewed. The pages should be free of major tears, creases or water stains. Some pages might be detached, but should not be missing. Previous repairs may be evident.
Poor—A book in poor condition probably has a broken binding, and the text block is in pieces. The front and/or rear boards are worn and detached. The pages of the book are probably soiled and/or water stained, and mold or mildew may be evident. The title page and other pages might also be missing.
The descriptive adjectives used, although not the descriptions, are taken from John Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors, 7th edition (1997).
What is my book worth?
As Rare Books Librarian, another question that I frequently hear from book owners is: What is my rare book worth? Some people are simply curious about the value of a particular (usually old) book in their possession. They may wish to sell a particular book, and don’t want to sell it too cheaply or ask an unreasonable amount from potential purchasers. Others wish to donate their rare book to a library, and want to know just how much they can “write off” on their tax return. In any case, there are many reasons to pose the question of just how much my book is worth.
The short answer about a book’s value is that it is complicated. A number of factors determine the worth of a book, including scarcity, authorship, importance, desirability, provenance (or previous ownership), condition, and market value.
The question of scarcity is sometimes difficult to determine, since copies of the book might exist in private collections. However, bibliographic databases such as Worldcat.org can help you determine relative scarcity by identifying how many copies exist in libraries.
Authorship and importance are related factors in determining the value of a book. If the book’s author is a famous scientist (like Charles Darwin), a statesman (like Thomas Jefferson) or an activist (like Harriet Beecher Stowe), and it is a ground-breaking study or best-selling novel, a rare book is more likely to be valuable– especially if it is a first edition and/or signed by the author. All of these factors increase the desirability of the book.
Another factor that determines the value of a book is its provenance, or who owned the book. The book’s owners can often be determined by bookplates or signatures inside the covers.
Another very important criterion for establishing value of the book is its physical condition. For information that can help you judge the condition of your book, please consult the State Library factsheet on this subject.
The true basis for evaluating the worth of a rare book is the market. Rare books, like most commodities, have a range of value. The best way to establish this range is to check out the prices asked by Rare Book dealers. Many rare book dealers are happy to appraise a book, and suggest its relative value. If you wish to determine a book’s value for yourself, simply look at the prices asked by members of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America. Their website is: www.abaa.org.