What do we do with old books?

Other than love and appreciate them, that is! Librarians are often asked how to determine the value of a book or a book collection. The scenario is simple: baby boomers want to downsize, they have books left from their parents or their grandparents and they want the books to have a good home, or they might just want to know if the materials have any value. Finally, they often want to dispose of the materials properly.

Keep in mind a few of the basic rules that most librarians consider. Old books are not always valuable. Books in good condition from the 17th and 18th century are almost always worth checking. In fact, books that predate the American Civil War are usually worth a look. After the Civil War (1860s) commercial publishing starts to really take hold and the quality of the paper after the 1860s often contains less cotton and a lot more pine. Have you seen books with yellow pages? That paper was made with added wood pulp and is acidic. Slowly the paper turns yellow and becomes brittle. Even today, commercial paperbacks will often show signs of yellowing. In contrast, check an expensive hardbound book or a book from the 1840s or 50s and though the cover might show signs of wear the paper inside the cover can be brilliant white.

Old books have other issues as well. The smell of mildew can be strong for books that have been stored in damp conditions. Ridding a book of mildew is hard to do. Along with yellowing pages and mildew, books can show signs of “foxing”.  Foxing is a spotting on the pages of books and apparently comes from the chemicals used in the paper-making process. The books are still usable but the presence of foxing does hurt the value of an old book.

The paper in this volume shows signs of “foxing”

Books this old, 1641, are rarely restored.

Books can be repaired. We are often asked about repairing family bibles and it should be noted that while some bibles do have monetary value, a well-worn family bible often has value as a family treasure rather than an antique. Book repair services can fix broken backs, repair torn pages, and restore covers and backs of books. Do keep in mind that this is all “hand work” and can be quite expensive. There are a couple of companies in this area that do restorations of old books.

Several characteristics can make a book valuable. Characteristics such as good condition, signed by a well-known author, a first printing (first edition) of a well-known title, books from a well-known author but with a limited portfolio, and first publications of award-winning authors can enhance the value of a book. It is interesting, but for some books, an intact dust jacket can be more valuable than the book itself!

It is pretty easy to find out what a book is worth. Here are some of the websites and businesses that we use. A good general lookup with lots of books is www.abebooks.com. This is the website of independent book sellers. Here you will find everything from a $2 copy of a classic to the $10,000 copy of a signed first edition. This site provides good information about the retail value of a book. Keep in mind that these are retail prices. No one has bought that book yet! Books from Abe are also listed for sale on Amazon.

Another good look-up is ebay. Again, you can see a list of book titles and the amount that sellers are asking but on ebay you can also see sold prices. Just do the search and when you have a results list, click on the advanced search link in the corner. Execute the search again but this time check the box for sold listings. Now you can see a list of completed sales and note what someone actually paid for that book. You can also check www.Zubal.com. Zubal is a rare book seller and website. This seller has little or nothing to do with newer rare books but if you are looking for something old and unusual then this is a good choice. Notice too, that you can get their help and even consign and sell books at Zubal.

For more information on valuing books you can view our library guide, Valuing Book Collections.

But what if you just need to get rid of these books? There are several organizations that take books or an entire collection. Better World Books at www.betterworldbooks.com is used by many libraries to handle their discards. They will take your books and sell them to make money for its charities. Their website has a list of the types of book and media that they will accept. This company is great–they do some good in the world, they recycle/resale the books, their prices are good and most of the time the shipping is free! I buy from them quite often. Your local Goodwill is also a good place to donate old usable books and most communities have many churches and public libraries that want your good quality books for their book sale and fundraising events.

Finally, keep in mind that books are a consumable and some content like encyclopedias, old magazines, old textbooks date themselves very quickly. Books, which can remain in good shape for years eventually reach the end of their lifespan and in High Point, Greensboro and the surrounding communities you can add these to your recycle bin for a rebirth into a beautiful new book.

-Blog Post by David Bryden, Director of Library Services