Library book with potentially valuable author's signature
July 20, 2021 7:46 AM   Subscribe

I checked out a book from my local public library and was amazed to discover that it is signed and inscribed by the author, an important American writer who is now deceased. Should I let the library know or do you think they already know? What is the best practice here?

(In case you are wondering how I feel confident is a genuine signature: It matches other instances of the author's signature that I found by Googling, it is done with a pen that made a slight indentation on the title page, and there is a brief dedication in the same handwriting and pen inside the front cover.)

After I got over my shock and amazement, I wondered what, if anything, I should do about this. I couldn't believe that the library had such a potentially important and valuable book circulating in its general collection. It made me wonder if they actually know what they have on their hands. I wondered if I should try to get in touch with a librarian and let them know about the signature. Maybe after that, they could limit use of the book to in-library study rather than having it circulate. Or if they needed to raise funds, they could try to sell it to a collector or something.

But at the same time, it felt pretty magical to discover the signature and inscription, to hold the book in my hands and have it on my nightstand. Maybe the library does know about the signature and has decided to have the book circulate anyway. Maybe they don't know but it would still be good to keep it secret, so that future borrowers can potentially have the same magical experience, and not be prevented from checking this copy out of the library.

What is my responsibility here? Especially interested in hearing from people in library professions.
posted by clair-de-lune to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Are signatures from this author particularly rare? Is it a first edition?
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:21 AM on July 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Responsibility? Probably nothing: it's theirs, in their collection.

Interest/enthusiasm? I bet they know, and also think it's cool! But to be sure, stop by the Circulation desk when you return it and just tell them what you found, and how cool you think it is. They're mosxtly book-lovers, too!
posted by wenestvedt at 8:22 AM on July 20, 2021 [13 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a librarian! When you return it mention it to the clerk or librarian, just as a, "Hey, thought you might want to know." It is likely that they do know, but maybe not! I found a book like this once in a school library and while I thought it was cool, it didn't change anything about the way I treated the book (except that I'd mention it to kids, who didn't seem as enthused about it as I was haha). In our case it turned out the author had visited the school many years ago and signed the library's copy of the book -- is the inscription to the library, or to a person? Maybe it was a donation that didn't get looked at carefully.

Basically I agree with wenestvedt; you don't have any obligation to tell them, but if nothing else they'll get a kick out of it (or maybe will ask folks who have been around a while if they know the origin of this copy).
posted by goodbyewaffles at 8:35 AM on July 20, 2021 [3 favorites]

If it's anything like settlement, when buying a house, I'm guessing the signature at the end of the ten thousands hardly resembled its appearance at the beginning.

There's an assumption here that books inscribed by their authors are worth more - and maybe, a lot. True? For a first edition in good shape, probably. But for a library book? No idea, but certainly depends on the author, and how old. But I've attended enough meet-the-author/buy-the-new-book/book-signing events to think that books signed by their authors may not be all that unusual.
posted by Rash at 8:42 AM on July 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

If you look the book up in the library's online catalog, is there anything mentioning the signature? Not that there necessarily would be, but if there is, that's proof they know about it.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:53 AM on July 20, 2021

Best answer: I'm a librarian and agree entirely with goodbyewaffles. If it was a public library, as you said, it might be something like the author signed the book when they were at the library or something similar. If it was in an academic library and the book is older, there's a good chance that either they know or the author's signature is just not that valuable. Since academic libraries often have scads of valuable books, this is not as interesting/important. I mean don't get me wrong, it's always neat to find something like this but a public library wouldn't necessarily treat a valuable book as any different. Those books belong to you, the public, and they're there for you to use and enjoy. I am glad you enjoyed this one.
posted by jessamyn at 9:10 AM on July 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

I'd like to hear what it is, when you get it sorted. thx!
posted by j_curiouser at 9:35 AM on July 20, 2021

Best answer: I once let a public library know that some books in their collection were selling for~20x their original cost (I only found out because I liked the books and wanted my own copies, only to find out they were out of print and highly sought after.) The librarians were unaware but unconcerned.

A book like you describe may only be worth a pittance more than a new copy, and it doesn’t sound like it is of exceptional historical value, so it may be exactly where they want it to be, delighting patrons who encounter it. You can certainly let them know when you return it, though!
posted by tchemgrrl at 10:08 AM on July 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

nthing the idea that the author was probably at the library at some point and signed the book. I'm a librarian and have hosted many authors visits - they usually offer to sign any of their books that are in the collection.
posted by missrachael at 10:29 AM on July 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'd tell the library, on the off chance that, if the author's signature is indeed valuable, someone less scrupulous than you would simply steal it.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:04 AM on July 20, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This could be a donation as well that was added to the collection -- I once found a Vincent Bugliosi-signed copy of Helter Skelter while digging through the donations bin at my old library workplace, thought "oh neat" and then just kept digging. But yeah, let someone know -- odds are the book will just keep circulating.
posted by jabes at 11:36 AM on July 20, 2021

Best answer: I am a librarian and I want to echo what Jessamyn said. This is really neat for you as a reader and user, but not really a big deal for the library. "Books are for use" is a tenet for some librarians. The value for the library in that book disappears if it isn't read. Public libraries buy books and circulate them for you, not to appreciate value. It has no value to the library if its sold to a private collector and removed from public access.

You've said this is an important, now-deceased American author. I quickly looked up the sale price (not the selling price but the sale price) of signed first editions of Beloved by Toni Morrison, and the prices range from $400-$1500. It would take a fair amount of staff time to sell a book like that (this isn't something libraries usually do), and to be honest, that isn't that much money for a library since library editions tend to have a lot of wear and sell for less.

I want to both celebrate that you enjoyed this and also let you know that it's not something the library necessarily needs to know or would be too concerned about. And what an absolute treat for you to know that the author held that particular book in their hands. That's worth something.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:40 PM on July 20, 2021 [3 favorites]

I don't sell books for a living but I do sell records. For the most part, Signed items are not really of special interest. Unless the artist is known for being anti-signature, it's really not that big of a deal.

Sure, tell the library, but I doubt they'll be as excited by it as you are.
posted by dobbs at 1:52 PM on July 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

Unless this book is by chance a signed first edition of Catcher in the Rye? That would probably be worth reporting.
posted by citygirl at 2:12 PM on July 20, 2021

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. I think I'm going to make an effort to tell a librarian when I go to return the book (instead of just dropping it in the return slot) and then let the library take it from there. It's true that the book is a bit beat-up now and might not be all that valuable.

I didn't want the identity of the author to distract people too much when I originally asked the question, but I suppose it's fine to reveal it now: it's a collection of plays by August Wilson. (I was amused by bluedaisy's guess of/comparison to Toni Morrison because I think Wilson did for American playwriting what Morrison did for American fiction!)

The book is inscribed "To [Female First Name]" rather than "To [City/Library]", so I'm inclined to go with the theory that it's a donation that the library chose to accept, rather than a book Wilson signed when visiting our library.

In the meantime, I'm going to cherish having it in my house and take a few pictures of the inscription. :-)
posted by clair-de-lune at 2:34 PM on July 20, 2021 [4 favorites]

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