Head’s Up: The Value of Special Collections


Title page of the First Folio, 1623

Title page of the First Folio, 1623

“How much is it worth?”

That’s often the first question we’re asked about materials in Special Collections, and when people ask that question they’re really asking about market value – the monetary value an item has in the marketplace. That’s the kind of value we’re all most familiar with on a daily basis, whether the subject is the Shakespeare First Folio or a bunch of bananas. And there’s a general perception, thanks to eBay and Antiques Roadshow, that rare, antique and vintage items can equate to “big bucks.”

In the realm of books and manuscripts the market value of items is driven largely by private collectors who have the resources to bid higher and pay more to get the best items. Collectors in general are immediately concerned with market value, partly because of the cost to acquire items, but also because collectors may sell as much as they buy. The potential for a return on their investment may drive an acquisition as much as personal interest in the item.

Academic libraries like ours certainly can’t ignore market value. It’s a reality any time we wish to purchase an item for the collections. But for us there are other and more important values connected with manuscripts and rare printed materials.

The first is research value. We are after all part of a university and we support the university’s mission of teaching, research and learning. Research value is very different from the value a collector may associate with an item. For example, we are often offered autographed materials. Autographs are fun, but generally they have no inherent research value. They usually tell us nothing new about the signer or the item signed. Even an autograph that is highly collectable and carries great market value usually has no research value. If, however, the autograph includes a personalized inscription, or even better, is attached to a letter or other content-rich document, then we are interested. Not by the autograph itself, but by the attached content, if that content reveals something about the writer or her times. To a researcher – and a special collections librarian – content is king.

The other value we seek in our collections is historical value. While the content of items with research value may contribute to our understanding of human history and culture, some items are in themselves part of that history. The original signed copy of the Declaration of Independence, for example, seen by many Americans at the National Archives, is a prominent example of this type of value. Lincoln’s draft of the Gettysburg Address is another. Locally, we have the original minute books of the Miami University Board of Trustees, from their first meetings in 1809. While the minutes also have research value for their contents, they are in themselves an artifact of Miami’s history.

Occasionally there is that item that unites all three values. The first collected works of William Shakespeare, published in 1623 – popularly known as the Shakespeare First Folio – is one of those items. We are very fortunate to have a copy, donated along with three succeeding editions by O. O. Fisher, a Miami alumnus, in the 1920s. The First Folio is popularly recognized as “valuable,” although our copy is imperfect, with a replaced title page, and would not achieve the highest market value. But its real value to Miami University is far greater. Its content offers Miami students access to 17th century English theater, history, literature and language. It is a rich primary resource for studying the early modern era, and because of that research value, we have made it available online.

As an artifact of Western cultural history it is difficult to surpass; as an object it connects us to the very beginning of our age.  The folio is the primary source of the Shakespearean canon, and as such is a major foundation of modern culture. Its plays and characters and dialogue are still familiar to us, its metaphors and aphorisms still a part of our common speech. Compiled and published by the playwright’s friends after his death, it memorializes the man whose insights into human nature and mastery of our language still astonish us, half a millennium later.

That is value, indeed.

Elizabeth Brice
Assistant Dean for Technical Services and
Head, Special Collections & Archives

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