Frequently Asked Questions

If you do not see the answer to your question here, please contact the Curator. 

Q. What exactly are rare books and special collections?
A. Rare books and special collections are often defined as materials that, because of subject coverage, rarity, source, condition, or form, are best handled separately from the general collection. Every library collects different subject areas. In our case, we have robust collection of American popular culture. This includes 19th and 20th century American literature, dime novels (e.g. Beadle’s, Nick,Carter, Deadwood Dick, Pluck and Luck, etc.), comic books, science fiction and fantasy, and historical children’s books (authors such as Horatio Alger, Louisa May Alcott, Frank Merriwell, Oliver Optic, etc.; series such as Tom Swift, Nancy Drew, The Bobbsey Twins, Elsie Dinsmore, Hardy Boys, etc.). Other strengths include a teaching collection of rare books, private press books, opera in Chicago, 18th century British literature, book arts, black studies, drama, and women, gender, and sexuality studies.

Q. I have an old book. Can you tell me what it's worth?
A. IRS regulations forbid libraries, librarians, and curators from appraising materials. However, antiquarian booksellers do it for a living. The easiest way to find an antiquarian bookseller in the States is to visit the website of their main professional organization, the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA). Regionally, you can find booksellers who deal in used and rare books through the Midwest Antiquarian Booksellers Association. You can also look in your local Yellow Pages under "booksellers." If you would like to try to search for yourself to determine a likely value, you can use sites like or to find a current market price for a book.

Q. Do you want to buy my old books from me?
A. Generally speaking, we work through professional book dealers who have relationships with our Technical Services Department when we make purchases. We are always happy to accept donations from single volumes to large groups of books.

Q. What makes a book rare?
A. It depends. Sometimes it is the age of the book. Sometimes it is how scarce it is, its method of production, historical significance, or the celebrity of its previous owner. First editions are not always rare, and rare books are not always first editions. You can learn more through an online guide published by the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the American Library Association, called Your Old Books.

Q. How do I donate books to the collection?
A. We are always interested in adding relevant materials in good condition to our collections. Our Collection Development Policy explains the types of books that fall within our collection scope and that we are interested in acquiring.
Please contact Sarah Cain, Curator, to discuss items that you would like us to consider as gifts. She can be reached at (815) 753-0255 or If you need documentation for tax purposes, please notify the Curator during the initial contact as our records policy has changed as of September 1, 2017.
Books that are not old or particularly rare can be donated to the library through the Gifts Coordinator, Ken Kamm ( Another way to donate books to the Library is through our Friends of the Library Book Sale. In all cases, your donation is tax-deductible.

Q. How can I provide financial support?
A. There are many ways to support the NIU Libraries. The Friends of the NIU Libraries provide a simple way to support library collections and services. There is also the opportunity to purchase a book for the library through the Library Book Fund. Alternatively, your generosity can be memorialized on our "Ensuring the Future" tree in our main lobby. You may choose to donate to existing endowments (Memorial and Endowment Funds) or contact the Curator to establish a new endowment.

Q. Can I request an appointment outside of normal business hours?
A. You may make an appointment to use RBSC materials with the Curator outside of our normal hours. These appointments are made available to researchers as well as to class and group visits. To make an appointment with the Curator, please call (815) 753-0255 or email.

Q. Can I schedule a tour? What about group visits?
A. Absolutely! We are always happy to give tours. Email the Curator to set up an appointment: Monday-Friday from 8am-noon and 1-4:30pm. We also welcome the opportunity to talk to groups and classes of all ages and educational levels. We work with you to tailor tours, class visits, and discussions to your research or teaching interests. We do ask that you schedule at least two weeks in advance so that we can gather items of interest to you. Faculty and educators interested in using materials as a part of curricula are encouraged to contact the Curator.

Q. What do you have?
A. In addition to about 10,300 rare books, predominantly in history, art, literature, religion, and philosophy, we also have 41 Special Collections. The largest portion of our collection is devoted to popular literature. We have one of the largest collections of dime novels in the country, and the most comprehensive collection of Horatio Alger, Jr. materials in the country. Our holdings are particularly strong in British and American poetry (Blake, Burns, Byron, Wordsworth, and Whitman) as well as prose (Graham Greene; Alan Denson; James Hanley; Jeremy Taylor) and drama (Historic Scenic Collection/Chicago Lyric Opera, Nisbet-Snyder, and University Drama Collections). We have collections in African Americana (including the Willard Motley papers); Gender Studies; Fine Arts, including a particular focus on Japanese printmaking; Book Arts, including pop-up books and artists’ books; Private Press; Radical Pamphlets; and the Art and History of the Book. We also collect SF/F literature, archives, and magazines as well as comic books. If you are looking for a specific title, please search our online catalog. However, some of our collections are not fully cataloged, so please ask us if you do not find what you are looking for.

Q. Can someone in RBSC do my research for me?

A. Staff do not conduct research on the behalf of patrons; however, we are happy to provide reference assistance. It is always recommended that researchers personally visit Rare Books and Special Collections. We understand this may not be possible for some researchers. Please contact the Curator by email or phone (815) 753-0255 if this circumstance applies to you. Questions are addressed in the order which they are received, and response time varies.

Q. Can someone in RBSC do my research for me?
A. We are happy to provide reference assistance to all researchers and answer basic reference questions. It is always recommended that researchers personally visit Rare Books and Special Collections; however, we understand this may not be possible for some researchers. Researchers may reach us by mail, telephone, and email, but please understand that we are not able to provide in-depth research services due to staffing constraints. Questions are addressed in the order which they are received, and response time varies.

Q. If I travel to NIU to do research, where can I stay?
A. The Hotel at Holmes is located at the heart of campus in the Holmes Student Center, which is directly across from the Library. There are other hotels in the area if you prefer to stay off campus.

Q. Can I make photocopies or scans of your materials?
A. Photocopying and scanning is available in RBSC. Copies are $0.25 per page in person; $5.00 for copies of 10 pages or less by mail, $0.25 per additional page. Scans are provided on a case-by-case basis, typically gratis. RBSC and Digitization Lab staff perform all copying and scanning. Please understand that not all materials can be copied or scanned due to their condition or nature. Copying is up to the discretion of RBSC staff. We do not accept the OneCard or Copy Card. Please see our Reproduction Policy for details.

Q. What is the oldest book in your collection?
A. The oldest printed book in our collection is a 1480 edition of De Humilitate Interiori by Joannes Carthusiensis, printed by Nicolas Jenson. We also have vellum manuscript leaves that were created roughly 300 years earlier and several medieval manuscript leaves that date from 1150 to 1530 CE. The oldest item in our collection is a cuneiform tablet, most likely Sumerian and created around 2000 BCE.

Contact Us

Rare Books and Special Collections

Phone: (815) 753-9838

Founders Memorial Library
Room 403
Northern Illinois University
DeKalb, IL 60115-2828

Business Hours