The answer to this question is complex, since the value or rarity of a book may be determined by a number of factors, such as an item’s condition, binding, provenance, signs of use (like inscriptions from former owners, dedications from the author, or marginal notes), significance of content, scarcity, and edition.
A good resource on this topic is an electronic pamphlet entitled “Your Old Books,” prepared by the Rare Books and Manuscripts Publication Committee, a division of the ACRL. You may also want to refer to "ABC for Book Collectors" by John Carter and Nicolas Barker, which is a classic of the topic. We are happy to make a reading room appointment for you if you would like to read it here at the Library, or you can find an older edition online for free.
The Rare Book Department's reading room is open by appointment only. That being said, we encourage everyone to use the Department's collections, and do not restrict access.
You may contact the Department to request an appointment by calling 215-686-5416 or emailing us. Our reading room is only two seats, so the further in advance you contact us, the more likely we will be able to accommodate you.
The reading room is available, space permitting, from 9:15 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., Monday through Friday.
For visitors interested in seeing what rare books look like, or some highlights from our collections, we encourage you to stop by to view our Treasures exhibitions (no appointment required), Monday through Saturday, 9:00 a.m. through 5:00 p.m.
We are located on the third floor across from the main elevator. No appointment is required to view our exhibitions or to take the free 11:00 a.m. tour.
We don't permit photocopying, but we encourage you to bring a camera or smartphone (with flash disabled) to take photographs of anything you see for your personal use.
It's a difficult question to answer, since the definition of "book" varies (is a seven-volume set 7 books? is a cuneiform tablet a book? how about a scroll?).
We do have more than 100,000 items in our collection, from more than 4,000 years ago to this year.
Almost all collections in the Rare Book Department have been acquired by donation or bequest. In addition, Simon Gratz, one of the original members of the Board of Trustees, and several other donors set up endowment funds that allow the Rare Book Department to add to existing collections.
The Rare Book Department does not purchase any material with city or state funds.
The Rare Book Department acquires new additions with trust funds or as gifts.
We do not, as a rule, purchase from private individuals, but we are always grateful for donated material in our collecting scope.
The Rare Book Department, among the largest in American public libraries, evolved as the result of generous gifts of individual collections from some prominent Philadelphians. The Library was founded in 1891 and in 1899, P.A.B. Widener presented the library with its first rare collection, 500 incunabula; The Hampton L. Carson Collection on the Growth and Development of the Common Law followed in 1929; The John Frederick Lewis Collections in the 1930s; and the A.S.W. Rosenbach Collection of Early American Children’s Books in 1947. The Rare Book Department emerged as a distinct department in 1949 with the installation of William McIntire Elkins’s physical library (a 62-foot-long paneled Georgian room from his estate in Whitemarsh, Montgomery County), which included his collections of Americana, Oliver Goldsmith and Charles Dickens.
Today, we are open six days a week for visitors to view our exhibitions (or take our 11:00 a.m. tour), teach and host a variety of classes using our collections, offer lectures and reading groups, host researchers from around the world, and travel around Philadelphia with a special collection of hands-on artifacts.
While we don't have digital exhibitions, we digitize items from our physical exhibitions and put the images online in the "Exhibitions" section of our Digital Collections.
Some older exhibitions have an online presence:
Yes. There are several dozen inventories and finding aids available for our non-book collections, viewable here.
The list includes other Special Collections as well as the Rare Book Department, and some inventories are not complete so please feel free to email or call us at 215-686-5416 with questions.
You can find a professional conservator via the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. There are some tips on how to "Save Your Stuff" on the American Library Association's website for Preservation Week or a more in-depth resource page via AIC. The Rare Book Department is unfortunately unable to make specific recommendations or referrals for preservation or treatment.
The Rare Book Department is open Monday through Saturday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.
There are two large-scale exhibitions each year, on view in the Dietrich Gallery, as well as rotating selections of more than one hundred highlights from the department's general collections (including Beatrix Potter, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, medieval manuscripts, and ancient cuneiform).
A daily tour of our general collection is given at 11:00 am or at other times by prior arrangement.
Although Rare Book Department librarians are neither qualified nor permitted to appraise books, there are professional appraisers who specialize in it.
An excellent source for locating a reputable book dealer in your area is the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America. In addition, www.abebooks.com is a sizeable marketplace for used books (including rare and collectible works) and can be used to research comparable values.
Some things to keep in mind:
- Financial value at resale does not always reflect emotional or artifactual value. For example, family bibles, even from the 1700s or 1800s, are often not highly saleable to collectors.
- A book in poor condition may look older than it actually is, and even very old books do better at sale when they are in fine condition.
- Dust jackets are usually very important to collectors, so books lacking the original jacket are often priced far lower than those in jacket. Similarly, book club editions (even if from the same year) are usually sold at a lower price point.
Reputable dealers can help you evaluate your book, but the Rare Book Department is unable to provide information on privately held materials.
Most, but by no means all, of the Rare Book Department's books are in the online catalog.
Users can limit their search to Rare Book Department holdings only. One option is to first search the online and then refine (via the left column) by Collection. Another option is to "Browse the Catalog" by Collection, and then select "Rare Book Department."
Catalogs or inventories for the department's collections that are not yet fully electronically cataloged, including non-Western manuscripts, the Carson law collection, Pennsylvania German imprints, and the Horace collection are available in the department.
Please feel free to email or call us with any questions about our holdings, whether electronically cataloged or not.