What makes a great numismatic library? How many books do you need to learn about coins and be a great numismatist? My numismatic library contains hundreds of titles. Some collectors have thousands of books, magazines, auction catalogs, and price lists in their libraries. Most casual coin collectors just have a handful of basic books.
Whether you are casual coin collector or seeking to be an expert, this is your guide to building a proper numismatic library. The goal is to tailor it for your needs as well as your expected needs as your collection grows.
We all started somewhere, with that one book. For many of us it was the Redbook or one of the many thick and heavy books produced by Krause Publications to teach us about coins and banknotes of the world. These books were enough to whet our palate, but sure enough there came a day in which we began to specialize on a topic, or even branch into a topic not covered in the typical books such as: tokens, medals, or exonumia. Some of us were just so fascinated by numismatics that we began amassing everything on the topic. Bibliomania meets numismatics.
Is one book really enough? If you are just a casual collector then one book might be enough. However, if you are going to be investing a lot of time and money in coins, developing a particular fascination with a country, series, or theme you would be best to add much more to your library.
One reason that one book is not enough is that it is written to a particular reader from a particular source(s). The desired reading audience may not match your reading style; too broad or too in depth versus too casual or too academic. So too the authors voice may not fit your particular style.
Another important reason relates to the information available to that author at that time. Two authors writing on the exact same topic at the exact same time will have different references as a result of their access to the information they’re writing about.
One example I can think of from my own experience in writing a catalog on food stamp change tokens is the ability to have access to major collections. Most collectors have been appreciative and contributing to the project. Still, a fair number would prefer not to contribute their research or share photos of examples in their collections. Some of the collectors I have secured permission from may not allow permission to a different author and vice versa.
Numismatic books are constantly updated with new information that was previously unavailable to the previous generation. Thus books in their second and third editions are often dramatically different than that first edition. Does that make the first edition obsolete?
Historic numismatic books (and those who have been significantly updated) are important because they frame the history of the hobby and where we’ve come, with a glimpse at where we are going. Serious numismatists use them to make discoveries on long hidden or misunderstood topics like the fascinating topic of die engravers. Many investors use them to track the value of a particular coin and seek to chart where it might be heading. Personally, I use certain early editions to track the understanding of rarity for a given variety.
What are the essentials? Essential books are going to be those that cover a lot of bases and go over the fundamentals related to grade. You may not enjoy grading coins or prefer to ignore items outside of your preferred grade, but grade almost always dictates price. The ability to grade coins properly will ensure we pay the appropriate price, don’t get ripped off, and allow us to occasionally make some great bargain buys. Here’s Jeff Garrett’s Top 10 Books to Get Started.
Photograde ( in its 19th Edition) and Making the Grade are clearly great examples to get started with that are missing from that list. The ‘heat maps’ on Making the Grade were one of the most helpful for me in getting started. I still own my first edition copy. The reality is, the majority of coins you will be grading today are from photographs alone since they are likely bought and sold online.
The next book you need that is just as essential is a value guide. There are arguments about what price guide is most accurate and it really does depend on what you collect. If you casually collect U.S. Type Coins in extra fine, the Redbook will be a great addition to your library each year it is issued. However, if you are a collector of MS-65 professionally graded Morgan Silver Dollars you will need subscriptions to the latest trends in The Grey Sheet, Numismatic News, and Coin World. That is in addition to the Redbook.
Generally speaking, the more money you have involved in the game, the more frequently you will need to consult the latest pricing trends.
The next book you will need relates to molding you into a connoisseur. What is your specialty? What is your preferred coin? If we use the previous example of Morgan Silver Dollars you could buy more than a dozen different books on Morgan Silver Dollars right now on Amazon. Find out why collectors are obsessed with Morgan Silver Dollars.
After exhausting that list, you will find dozens more. These books go into detail about the series you collect, highlighting history, mintage figures, die varieties, specialty grading guides, and entertaining stories from collectors. I eagerly await Lake Books mail bid sales for these types of gems. Those second-hand editions are amazing for the handwritten notes often found in the text. Supporting a fellow numismatist and getting fair prices is always a win-win.
And forget stopping at just reference books. There are going to be many valuable auction catalogs that contain important pricing and rarity information on those Morgan Silver Dollars you collect. Plus, you will thoroughly enjoy all of the breathtaking photos of the rainbow toning and deep mirror cameo examples. Triton catalogs are one of my favorites with their wonderfully rare ancient coins and the associated collecting history (provenance).
And if you are like most numismatists you will thoroughly enjoy reading about coins and coin collectors, even if you do not collect the particular series or coin being discussed in the book. Confession: I do not currently collect gold coins, yet I am incredibly fascinated with Private Gold Coins. Thus I own half a dozen books on a topic I don’t even collect.
If you have also been bit by the bibliomania bug (better check out the E-Sylum newsletter archive) then there are other factors to take into account like the binding of the book, the quality of the cover and a desire for folio size and gilt lettering. Some of my favorite numismatic books are those that smell of pipe tobacco, bought second-hand from other collectors. Though I understand the economics of printing softcover there is something to be said for the feel of a hardcover gripped between your fingers.