Do we just collect “Old Stuff”? Appraisal in Special Collections & Archives

Let’s say you find an old book in your attic or garage. Or at a yard sale. Would we be interested in taking your donation?

Maybe! But to be clear, not just because it’s old. Our collections contain materials from 2053 BC to books published in just the past few years. While age may be an aspect of determining rarity, it’s not the whole story.

With rare books, I am frequently asked to provide appraisal services for items in our patrons personal collections. This isn’t a service I’m able to provide – I usually refer patrons to the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America’s web site, where they can search for an appraiser nearby.

But I do conduct appraisals in selecting materials to add to our collections. I’d like to clarify what we mean when we talk about appraisal as a part of the selection process in Special Collections and Archives. When “laypeople” (non-archivists and librarians) say appraisal, they often mean assessment of an object for its monetary value. 

Is it rare? Is it valuable? Is it right for our collections?

While monetary value and current demand for a book (or a collection of books) are part of the criteria I review in assessing its appropriateness for FSU’s Rare Book Collections, it is just one facet in a web of related values that are considered. 

Content: The subject matter of a book is one of the top factors in assessing its appropriateness for our collections. We want to develop collections that serve the research and instruction interests of the University, further support our current collections’ areas of strength and emphasis, and fill gaps in the diverse historical perspectives recorded in our books and manuscript materials. 

Scarcity: The rarity of a book may be related to its age, but a limited printing run or other factors could contribute to an edition’s scarcity. A very scarce item might be of higher value in appraisal for Special Collections & Archives as our acquisition of it preserves the item without duplicating efforts of other repositories.

Market Value: While market value is related to scarcity, the price connected to an item is a combination of the other factors listed here. The book market is in flux and responds to the demands raised by current events and waves of popularity. When students ask me “How much is it worth?” I’m always sure to explain that 1) Worth isn’t always just about money and 2) The monetary amount isn’t a fixed value.

Condition: The volumes we collect vary in their condition, and we review incoming materials for preservation concerns and deterioration. Again, this is weighed against other factors: an extremely rare book in poor condition might be more attractive than a wildly available volume in excellent condition. 

Connections: Determining a book’s connections as a material object requires some research and knowledge of history. Is it the first edition, the first edition thus, a later edition but important to the history of the title? (I’m thinking of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein here. The first edition was printed in 1818, but the 1831 edition includes Mary Shelley’s Introduction as well as the first engraving of “the monster” in the frontispiece) What is the item’s provenance (its history of ownership over time)? And other similar considerations…

The value of an object is ultimately in the eye of the collector or curator. For example, I own my dad’s Latin textbook from his high school years. Is that worth a lot of money, or particularly rare? Nope. Does it mean a lot to me, and belong in my personal collection? ABSOLUTELY.

My dad’s old book, titled “College Latin” though he says he used it in high school.
I love the endpapers, and his name written in the top right corner.

So what do you have in your personal collections? We’d love to hear about them! Drop a comment below.

2 thoughts on “Do we just collect “Old Stuff”? Appraisal in Special Collections & Archives

  1. My favorite book in my collection is a 1942 copy of Don Quixote with full color illustrations by Salvador Dali!

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