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, inscriptions within the book (especially by well-known people), importance/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 on the topic of rare books.


 There are a number of resources on this subject. One particular book you may want to read is ABC for Book Collectors  by John Carter and Nicolas Barker which was first published in 1952.  You may also want to refer to The American Association of Antiquarian Books F.A.Q. list ( , which provides helpful information on the subject of book collecting.

Scholars, researchers, university professors and students may request access to specific materials by submitting a formal request to do so. Access to materials is by appointment and must be arranged prior to arrival. Patrons are encouraged to view our exhibitions anytime from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, Monday through Friday or by attending a daily tour of the department given at 11:00 am.

We are located on the third floor across from the main elevator. Please ring the door bell once you arrive. 


Due to the rarity and sensitivity of our materials, photocopying materials is not permitted. Any exception to this rule is at the discretion of the staff.

The Rare Book Department has close to 125,000 thousand pieces/items spanning 4,000 years.

·         To preserve and augment the outstanding collections of rare books and manuscripts acquired by the Free Library of Philadelphia from 1899 to the present.

·         To catalog collections for scholarly use and general research.  

·         To make collections available to qualified researchers.

·         To encourage public interest and appreciation of rare books and manuscripts through exhibitions, programs, publications and tours.


·         Collections of major original drawings and books illustrated by Beatrix Potter, Kate Greenaway, Arthur Rackham, A.B. Frost, Robert Lawson, Munro Leaf and Howard Pyle and his students.

·         Over 1200 Fraktur [manuscript folk art] and more than 300 broadsides in the Pennsylvania German Collection.

·         Western Illuminated manuscripts in the John Frederick Lewis Collection, which consist of over 250 codices and at least 3000 separate leaves of illumination and calligraphy, from the 9th to the 18th century. These include Books of Hours, Bibles, Psalters, antiphonaries, graduals,  missals, writings of church fathers, religious texts and humanist manuscripts.

·         Over 153 manuscripts and 1200 leaves in the John Frederick Lewis Oriental Collection that includes Arabic, Persian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Hebrew, Hindustani, Sanskrit and other examples of illumination and calligraphy.


·         John Frederick Lewis Collections of Cuneiform Tablets and his collection of European and Oriental Manuscripts.

·         The Copinger-Widener Collection of Incunabula (the first printed books printed before 1501.)

·         The Hampton L. Carson Collection on the Growth and Development of The Common Law.

·         A.S.W. Rosenbach Collection of Early Children’s Books. 

·         D. Jacques Benoliel Collection of The Letters of Charles Dickens

·         Moncure Biddle Collection of Horace.

·         American Sunday-School Union Collection.

·         Richard Gimble Collection of Edgar Allan Poe. 

·         Pennsylvania German Fraktur and Imprints.

·         Collection of the Original Drawings and Books Illustrated by Beatrix Potter, Kate Greenaway, Arthur Rackham, A.B. Frost, Robert Lawson, Munro Leaf and Howard Pyle & His Students.

·         The Library of William McIntire Elkins, which includes his furnishings and his personal collections of Americana, Oliver Goldsmith and Charles Dickens.


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 Arthur Rackham Collection and portions of the Pennsylvania German Collection were purchased exclusively with trust funds. 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.

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 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.

Yes. There are over 15 finding aids available for our collections. Click here to access them. 

Yes. You can find us on Facebook by searching "The Rare Book Department of The Free Library of Philadelphia".>

Please click on the link below from The American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works and learn how to protect your materials and find a professional conservator.

The Rare Book Department is open on weekdays, Monday to Saturday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. A daily tour of our collection is given at 11:00 am or at other times by prior arrangement.

Although librarians are not qualified to appraise books, we can provide you with the following information: given the complexity of determining an item’s value, one should consult a professional/reputable appraiser who specializes in the item’s specific subject area. An excellent source for locating a reputable book dealer in your area is The Antiquarian’s Bookseller of America’s website: In addition, and are two excellent online databases, which list asking prices for books by title and condition.

Books and periodicals in the following collections are listed in the online database:

  • Early American children's books (before 1850) including the A.S.W. Rosenbach and Frederick Gardner Collections and additions
  • The American Sunday School Union
  • Beatrix Potter
  • Arthur Rackham
  • Kate Greenaway
  • Department reference books.

Catalogs or finding aids for most of the department's other collections, including European and oriental manuscripts, incunabula, the Carson law collection and literary and historical manuscripts are available in the department. For more details, see the Resource Guides page.